Championing Diversity in the Transportation Industry
Greer Johnson Gillis is being honored as a Transportation Ladders of Opportunity Champion of Change.
I fell in love with the infrastructure and the complex system of roads and bridges of Interstate 285 and the “Spaghetti Junction” interchange of I-285 and I-85 as a teenager traveling to Atlanta for the first time. I began to dream about how that interchange was built, and I knew my destiny would be in transportation engineering.
Although I was prepared academically for an engineering career, nothing prepared me for the challenges that I would face as a female and a minority in the engineering industry. After attending predominately white colleges in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had become used to being the only female in my engineering classes, and in some cases, the only African-American in the room. Today, I sometimes still find myself being the only woman in a meeting to discuss an engineering project, or the only minority in a room full of consultants, or the only female minority in a meeting with my clients. But I have seen many positive changes in my industry, and I am proud to have contributed to making those changes.
Early in my career, I became involved with Women’s Transportation Seminar International (WTS) and Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), which aim to increase the participation for women and minorities in our industry by providing mentoring opportunities, scholarships for students, and leadership training, among other strategies. By means of these organizations, I work to mentor and to provide opportunities for our next generation of transportation leaders.
In my work, I’ve had several opportunities to increase participation of women and minorities in our industry by providing access, training, and being a champion for others. I participate in USDOT’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) Mentor-Protégé Program. I mentor a small, women-owned business, Symmetra Design, a transportation and traffic engineering firm in Washington, DC. When the owner, Nicole White, approached me to join her in the program and help expand her business, I jumped at the chance to help her stratgize! We meet regularly with OSDBU representatives to discuss how we can maximize her success in the federal markets. We are helping Nicole develop a strong marketing program. We’ve partnered with her on several major pursuits and projects, including a study of speed cameras in the District of Columbia. I also mentor another Washington, DC-based DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise) firm, Cube Root Corporation. We have partnered on many successful projects and pursuits and are helping the owner to develop a strong quality assurance plan for his small company. Our clients see the value of these partnerships—having diverse thoughts in collaborative forums helps us achieve sound resolution of our clients’ challenges. Our clients appreciate that we are giving back to our community by mentoring these firms.
I continue to see successes every day. In March of this year, I had the pleasure of chairing COMTO’s Celebrating Women who Move the Nation Awards program, which honored 11 phenomenal women who had changed the face of the transportation industry across all modes. During the acceptance speeches, I looked out into the audience and saw over 500 transportation professionals sitting in the room. I was no longer the lone female or the only African-American, or the only minority in the room. My clients, my peers, my colleagues, and my role models were all in the room – representing the diverse nation that we are.
Greer Johnson Gillis, P.E., is the Area Manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global engineering and construction management firm, in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.