The importance of mentorship and the challenges of being a woman and a minority in transportation

Carolyn FlowersNamed ‘Woman of the Year’ by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar in 2008 and a true inspiration to many women around the world, we were privileged to be joined by Carolyn Flowers as part of our International Women’s Day seminars. Carolyn shared inspiring stories of her impressive career in public transit, spanning both government and consulting roles and shared her proudest achievements, including receiving the ‘Tom Bradley Alumnus of the Year’ award by the UCLA Black Alumni Association.

Currently a Partner and Managing Principal of the global, female-dominated consultancy InfraStrategies LLC, Carolyn initially began her career journey at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) by landing a role in a community outreach programme whereby she supported women and minorities for procurement opportunities. Given her previous financial background, it wasn’t long before she quickly transitioned into budget and administration which kick-started her progression through the organisation where she primarily held financial responsibilities but was also given the opportunity to work in operations and be supported by great mentorship and sponsorship from her CEO’s.

“During my 19 years at LA Metro, I moved through the ranks from Analyst to Senior Analyst, Chief Analyst, Deputy Executive of Finance, Chief Administrating Officer, and ultimately moving across to operations as the Chief Operating Officer. This is where the real challenge started; being accepted in the role of leadership over bus and rail operations. I had to demonstrate and prove that I could facilitate what was needed for the daily running of operations rather than the knowledge of how to drive a bus. It’s the business skills that made me successful in that position,” Carolyn proudly admits.

Carolyn’s remarkable experience stems from various previous roles which include Senior Vice President of Americas Transit Market Sector at AECOM, Acting Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration under President Obama and CEO and Director of public transit for the Charlotte Area Transit System. Carolyn emphasises some of her biggest challenges during these transitions; “being a woman in transit and having my voice heard at the table was imperative. On numerous occasions, people have tried to ignore me or intimidate me, but I always addressed this behaviour by staying visible. It’s important to challenge those that try to ignore you and the only way to overcome it is by ensuring you continue to project your voice.”

Carolyn’s progression has successfully given her visibility in both private and public sectors and a good, broad knowledge of public transit in the US as well as exposure at international levels. A huge part of her success is down to availing herself of several learning and networking opportunities which have played an essential role in helping her grow within any organisation or career. Carolyn explains how she undertook several industry programs for leadership such as The Eno Center Executive Program, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Leadership Program and the Leadership Charlotte. She was also part of an international studies program with the Transit Cooperative Research program and the networks she developed with classmates and organisations helped her excel in her business and leadership skills. Not only has she gained insight from these programs, she has committed her time to advancing women in transportation by offering mentorship as an international board member for the Women’s Transportation Seminar.

“Providing opportunities and mentorship for women has always been important to me but it comes with its fair share of challenges. I always had a mantra: I love my job. My desktop featured a big heart sign, and when I was presented with challenging days, I would look at the heart and repeat I love my job three times to reinforce what my job was doing for me and the influence my work was having on the wider community. This is how I found the solution or the direction to try to address that challenge.”

Experimenting, taking a different direction to the crowd, and having the confidence to believe in her knowledge and worth is the reason behind Carolyn’s successful achievements within public transit. Alongside her professional accomplishments, Carolyn has equally been privileged in receiving personal achievement recognition through several awards. Being awarded the ‘Tom Bradley Award of the Year’ by the UCLA Black Alumni Association resonated with her significantly as this award is named after the first African-American Mayor of Los Angeles, a champion of public transportation for LA County. 

Carolyn’s final words of wisdom summarised how perseverance has been a major lesson she has learned throughout this journey. “As a woman and a minority, I could have been discouraged many times working in a male-dominated industry, but I believed in myself and my ability to learn and continue to grow through new opportunities. I think it’s important to show your curiosity and not be afraid in not knowing because you can always learn something new. One thing that I have seen over the years is trying to devalue the knowledge that the woman in the room has and thinking that you’re superior to her without understanding what she’s bringing to the table. I’ve always exercised my brain power and stayed prepared and organised, looked back on my budget and financial training (where advanced planning and knowledge is key) and that’s how I have addressed those challenges that I’ve faced over the years.”


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