27 women offer advice on advocacy and leadership in biking

October 3, 2017

by Martha Roskowski, PeopleForBikes vice president for local innovation

As part of a recent panel discussion, I was asked for advice for women in biking advocacy. Though I’ve worked in transportation for more than two decades, my gender doesn’t automatically make me an expert, so I decided to crowdsource the assignment. I sent an email to a bunch of friends in the field asking them to share their thoughts.

Some of their responses are here. The advice is wide-ranging and not all in agreesment. They share common themes of tenacity and courage, taking your seat at the table and taking care of yourself. Enjoy these words of wisdom.


“Own the fact that you are frequently the only woman in the discussion. Speak up early and often. A male colleague gave me a real compliment when he told me he counted on me to ask the obvious questions that others were afraid to raise for fear of looking stupid. Pretend you are fearless until you are.”

– Ellen Jones, Director of Infrastructure, Downtown Business Improvement District, Washington DC

“Make a list of your top 10 leaders you admire. Reach out to 3 of them via a phone call or hand-written note and ask for specific advice or a review of a project you are working on. Be bold, be humble and be grateful in reaching out. Even if they don’t respond, keep them updated and connected on what you are doing and continue to thank them for their work. You are building a valuable inner circle of supporters to lean on.”

– Ariadne Scott, Bicycle Program Coordinator, Stanford University

Melissa Balmer, director of PedalLove.org.

“The story of your own struggle and overcoming will give richness and relevance and create bridges of understanding that data alone, and only advocating for others can’t do. This is the true path to the culture shift we’re seeking. Only personally engaging storytelling changes hearts and minds.”

– Melissa Balmer, Director of PedalLove.org and Media Manager for the California Bicycle Coalition

“My best advice is to be confident, in full awareness of the unique strengths and capabilities that you bring to the table. Each one of us brings something to the workplace and/or our various circles that is important, so don’t be intimidated by the skill sets or experience you may not have, and instead be confident in what makes you special.”

– Elysa Walk, General Manager, U.S. Burton

  • Save ‘I’m sorry’ for your personal relationships
  • Pack a snack for city council meetings
  • Save reason for after the heat of their moment passes

– Drusilla van Hengel, Principal, Nelson\Nygaard

Piep van Heuven, Denver Director for Bicycle Colorado.

“Advice to my younger self:

The practical: Schedule your health care appointments and time for vacation and family first, then fill in other work commitments around these. Dedicate time to interests outside of work – exercise, music, art, etc. Also, have a pet.

The visionary: Advocacy is the long game – fight the individual battles with gusto, and then wipe the slate clean. Build relationships and don’t harbor grudges. We’ll be judged by the way we treat others, and the ultimate body of work we produce.”

– Piep van Heuven, Denver Director, Bicycle Colorado

“‘Work in silence and let your success be the noise.’ Not sure who said it 🙂 But I actually think it is good to set some secret goals and then be super aggressive about them. If they come flaming back to earth, move on to the next one. If you get some traction, then announce your plans and solicit allies.”

– Ashley Korenblat, Managing Director, Public Land Solutions

Luann Hamilton, left, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

“Change isn’t easy: it’s hard work, it can take time, it can turn friendly acquaintances into foes, but it’s well worth it. Every bike project we do, even a minor improvement, can become controversial. Be persistent, find allies and work together, and remember that the end goal is more than a successful project, it’s culture change.”

– Luann Hamilton, Deputy Commissioner, Chicago Department of Transportation

“Take a seat at the table. Figuratively (offer your ideas, speak up, make yourself noticed), but literally too. When there is a meeting and there’s a table for attendees and then some seats around the edge of the room, go ahead and sit at the table. If someone asks you to move, that’s fine. But more often than not, you belong at the table and sitting there reinforces to you and everyone else that you have important contributions to share!

I’m also a big believer in this one (and it has served me well): Dress for the job you want, NOT the job you have.”

– Allison Billings, Principal, Innovative Urban Strategies

Terry Malouf, former board president of Bicycle Colorado.

“While we are all advocates in one or more ways, the people on the commercial side of bicycling can be very influential voices for advocacy. Have a strategy to make them want to be included in the movement. Be knowledgeable about their businesses — both the history and the current challenges — so that when you meet up with them they’ll know you care and that you are interested. It’s the same thing you want from them. Since it’s a male-dominated business sector, as a female you will be regarded as a leader if you can speak with intelligence and compassion about their concerns as well as your own.”

– Terry Malouf, Founder and President, T. Malouf Executive Search, former President of the Board, Bicycle Colorado

“I think there’s a strong trend right now to encourage women to ‘lean in’ or behave more like men in business settings. I certainly believe that I am successful in a male-dominated field because I learned to do this at a young age. But I think real change and real trust comes when people in power make space for others and learn to listen well. I learned this from my cofounder, a gay man, who is far more sensitive to inclusion than I am. After working with him for about 10 years now, I’ve learned to work with men differently, and remind them, one on one, in the hallway or before a meeting to (as I like to say) ‘lean the f*ck back’ and invite women, shy people, people of color, people with less business experience into conversations.”

– Erin Barnes, Executive Director/Co-Founder, ioby

“Diversify early in your career. For a leadership track in the transportation field it really helps to work in land use planning at some point. Having diversified experience will give you that extra ‘edge.’ I did this by accident, but looking back it has definitely prepared me for leadership roles in both Planning or Transportation.”

– Annick Beaudet, Transportation Systems Development Division Manager, City of Austin

Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore.

“Be bold. Every opportunity afforded to me has come about because I decided to get comfortable with sticking my neck out. It makes you vulnerable to criticism–and some of it can be quite harsh. But the reward is getting to do work that challenges and excites you, and makes the best use of your talents. Resist the urge to shrink into the background. When you’re bold, it becomes easier for other women in your midst to do the same. When I grow tired of being out in front, I think of the women in my life who have told me that my leadership has inspired them to step up. It’s ok if there isn’t a script to follow, or someone to model yourself after. To forge a new path, we need to be trailblazers.”

– Liz Cornish, Executive Director, Bikemore

  1. Be authentic. There are lots of ways to lead effectively — figure out what works for you.
  2. Be honest. We all make mistakes and we all have shortcomings — admit them.
  3. Apologize when you are wrong but don’t apologize for who you are.
  4. Take chances (and ride fast) – you don’t know what you are capable of until you try.
  5. Fail and learn from it.

– Jennifer Boldry, Director of Research, PeopleForBikes

Seleta Reynolds, general manager for the Los Angeles DOT.

  1. Know your strengths and work on being great at something you’re already good at. Don’t waste time on your weaknesses: hire or create a network around them instead. Mastery will separate you.
  2. Your looks matter. It is human nature to read someone and make a snap judgement about them. What you telegraph with your style should align and add to your substance.
  3. A genuine and well-delivered apology can re-set a hostile room. It is a secret weapon not readily available to most men.

– Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation

“A Formula for Feminist Leadership: Five P’s– Plus a P.S.

A Purpose, a Plan, a Phalanx of friends, Persistence and Pleasantness throughout.

P.S. Beware the imposter who wants to steal your power.”

– Marianne Fowler, Senior Strategist for Policy Advocacy, Rails to Trails Conservancy

“I’d like to share some advice from my late mother-in-law Meg Charlop, who was an incredible community organizer and public health activist. I think this speaks to what it takes to be a leader and to have real staying power in your career.

‘I do what I do because I have a certain vision of social change and a better world. I know so many people who started out with that intention and soon got so overwhelmed by their efforts that they forgot the vision that they were inspired by – even got distorted by their efforts. I decided a few years ago that I needed to live a little bit of the life that I aspired to for others – every day. To take time to have a cup of tea, to be in love, to have a garden and make music. To be the kind of person, living the kind of life – if only for a little part of each day – that I hope everyone can achieve.'”

– Dani Simons, Motivate

Crissy Fanganello, director of transportation and mobility for Denver Public Works.

“My epiphany came during a leadership course many years ago when I realized I could play on multiple levels all at the same time, the city, the region, the state, the nation and perhaps even the world. I think sometimes we see what is immediately before us and let it shape our boundaries when in reality our insight, energy and passion can positively influence much, much more. If you believe in your work (whatever it might be) you can truly make change in the world at a variety of scales. So, LOVE what you do and if you don’t try something different!”

– Crissy Fanganello, Director of Transportation and Mobility, Denver Public Works

“My younger self wishes I could summon up more confidence to sit at the table with the men as an equal. It’s easy to say, “have more confidence,” but men seem to have it even when they are not as qualified, experienced or smart as us. Finding a mentor is key. Maintain a healthy balance between work and “life,” because your work will suffer if you don’t take care of yourself. Ride your bike as much as you can, for exercise, but also to clear your head. Ideas come to me while riding.”

– Sky Yaeger, Director of Bicycle Development, Shinola

“Always take a seat at the table and take the seat of most importance you can get- next to the person leading the meeting. When possible, for meetings that are important to your cause/campaign, write the agenda (literally and figuratively). Then your issues will get top priority. And it is amazing how many people will cede that power to you, just because they want to do one less thing.
Look at everything you do under the light “is this the best use of the money people are giving this organization”? It will help you better prioritize and use your time. It will help you cut out useless meetings. It will stop you from spending a lot of time on projects that don’t contribute to your organization.”

– Sue Prant, Executive Director, Community Cycles

Jennifer Toole, president of Toole Design Group.

“My advice to women leaders is to surround yourself with people who lift you higher. That does NOT mean surround yourself with people who agree with you – on the contrary, you need colleagues who constantly challenge you to make the right decisions, and who ask difficult questions at the right times, and who disagree with you and are willing to argue it out. But there are people whose underlying goal in challenging you is to make the collective outcome better, and others who take delight in seeing you fail. Surround yourself with the first type.”

– Jennifer Toole, President, Toole Design Group

“Born female to military parents and raised Protestant in the Midwest, I was taught to work hard and do as I was told. I have learned that hard work will always be important, but a lot of the times I should learn to ignore the “no” and pursue what I think is the best opportunity anyway. With tact, of course.”

– JJ Trout, Director of Data + Technology, PeopleForBikes

“My advice to my nieces and to my daughters is this: Don’t be an asshole. But sometimes it’s okay to be a bitch. And by that I mean, stand up for yourself, stand up for others, speak your truth, offer your opinion, don’t back down if you think you’re right, be part of the conversation, don’t let people interrupt you, insist on being treated with respect. Some people may see this behavior and call you a bitch. So be it. Own it.”

– Zoe Kircos, Director of Grants and Partnerships, PeopleForBikes

Ann Chanecka, bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator for the City of Tucson.

“Take time for long-term visioning / strategic planning instead of just getting caught up putting out fires. When you are fighting those daily fires it is important to have direction on where you want to go and how your work / your organization can make your community better.

Take breaks to rejuvenate yourself. Your work will always be there when you return. Change can happen slowly; you need to be ready for the long haul and not get burnt-out by the smaller battles.”

– Ann Chanecka, Bicycle & Pedestrian Program Coordinator, City of Tucson, AZ

  • Get clear on your strengths and use them with confidence. Step into your greatness.
  • Take 5 minutes each day to celebrate your successes, however small.
  • Learn to take each day at a time, and when the going gets rough, one hour at a time. Breathe and use the power of breath as your ally in all matters.
  • Balance your advocacy work with a complete life, rich with family, friends, exercise, intellectual curiosity, art, nature, music, spirituality, creativity, and more…
  • Build a team, understand your team, appreciate your team, work with and through your team. Nothing is achieved alone. NOTHING.
  • Be grateful, every day, for all that you have, all that you are, all you are doing to make the world a better place.
  • Take care of yourself, above all. No one else will do this for you but you.”

– Mia Birk, former President and CEO, Alta Planning + Design

“It has been important for me to set a clear long-term vision or set of principles that I return to again and again to help me make day to day decisions. So, set a clear vision for your job or your project, write down a few key principles, and return to them again and again in making everyday decisions.

Strangely, I’m not sure if I ignore the fact that I’m one of few women in my field (or in the room) or if I’m just so used to swimming against that current that I don’t even notice it anymore.”

– Barbara McCann, Director, Office of Policy Development, Strategic Planning and Performance, U.S. Department of Transportation.

“I recently read a study that found that when job hunting, men will apply for positions if they feel they meet at least 30% of the qualifications. For women, the average is needing to feel that they meet 80% of the qualifications before they’ll even apply! Wow.

As women, we need to read this, know this and be willing to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones. If we don’t push and stretch ourselves to reach higher, we’ll never be at the top tier in this industry, or any industry for that matter. We’re so capable yet somehow remain the last to see it.”

– Amy Morfas, Deputy Director, Bicycle Colorado

All photos were provided by their subjects.

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