The Fixer. There are women you come across in life that defy what society has you thinking a man’s job is and Lisa is one of those women. Our interview happened over drinks and apps at the Soho House and when we were done, I just wanted to do more with my life.
Who is Lisa?
She says while laughing, “I am an enigma…. my family is Creole from Louisiana but I was born and raised in Chicago to a single teenage mom.” She met her father once but has no real recollection of the encounter. As a young girl, she joined the Chicago Children’s Choir in the 4th grade, and through classical music, she got to visit Italy, the United Kingdom, and South Africa shortly after Apartheid ended. Lisa knew singing was not her long-term plan and always had other interests. She was interested in architecture and in high school, she realized she was good at physics and math. With this discovery, her high school AP physics teacher pointed out to her that she didn’t think Lisa wanted to be an architect, she wanted to be an engineer. At the time, Lisa agreed but had no real knowledge of what an engineer did. She just researched the profession and decided to pursue it not knowing it was a predominately Caucasian male dominated industry. She went into it blindly and because she was from Hyde Park, she had always lived in an integrated neighborhood which never forced her to understand segregation.
She attended Xavier University in New Orleans Louisiana. While on a college tour with the Kenwood Academy Concert Choir, Lisa and her mom decided to visit Dr. Norman Francis Instead of going on a tour, and he told her they have a dual degree program he thinks she will be good for and she could attend Xavier if she wanted to. She applied, got in and majored in physics first with a minor in math which was an accelerated program she completed in three years. Right after, she went to engineering school at Tulane where she completed the program. Lisa says, “Tulane was my first choice for undergrad by the way and I got to go there with a degree already in hand.” Lisa was the only African American woman in her graduating class at Tulane. While in college, she ensured she was busy every summer with internships at different companies because she wanted to learn more about the field she had chosen. She points out that she was usually the only African American and in many cases, the only woman. When she returned to Chicago, she started her career in construction where she was a project manager. She says, “I was 23 and I had to tell a bunch of older white guys what to do every day. You can imagine how that went. I would say though, the experience taught me a lot about myself and definitely helped build my character.” She was at that job for two and a half years and during her time there, she got to build the North Avenue Bridge, the 33rd Street Bridge over the Dan Ryan right before the Chicago White Sox Stadium, the Red Line station at Howard, the Brown Line renovation and the toll plaza in Aurora. She recalls during this time; she was busy 24/7. She worked night and day and on the weekends, as well. There were no other women working with her during this time and the only other minorities present were Hispanic. She left her first post college job and returned to the company she did a co-op with while she was at Tulane, URS Corporation. When she made this transition, her primary job switched to designing again, she was the only female and the only African American. In this position, she was doing work that directly related to what she went to school for. Lisa designed three tunnels for O’Hare Airport, The tram extension, and a few pedestrian bridges. Lisa recalls her time doing this and she says, “I made a mistake and told the guys I worked with I wasn’t scared of heights [which I’m not] so I had to inspect all the high bridges like the Chicago Skyway.” Being able to have these experiences was great for Lisa but then she realized she worked with people that had been there for 20 years doing the same thing and in that moment, she put herself on a five-year deadline to get out of that position. She didn’t know her next step but she knew she was not going to stay a day longer than the deadline she set for herself. While in college, Lisa got involved with NSBE and she remembered one of the main things they enforced was the need for them to give back because there weren’t enough black engineers. Lisa remembered this and decided to start teaching physics to children on the weekends. Her investment in the community earned her a few awards including the Pyramid Award of Excellence in Community Service at URS (now AeCom), which was the company she worked for at the time. With over 50,000 employees worldwide, it was a huge honor for her to be recognized twice. She was also honored with an award from WTS – women in transportation, and her alma mater Tulane with the Young Alumni Award this was especially outstanding as Tulane is a predominantly Caucasian school. Her award at Tulane came a month before her fifth-year award at her job and she went into panic mode. She told anyone who would listen she was quitting but she didn’t know her next step yet the only certain thing was that she knew she was getting out of there. A couple of weeks to her anniversary, she got a call from a woman she didn’t know who worked at URS at the time. She asked Lisa to meet her in the lobby where she told Lisa she had been reading about her and she was impressed. The lady then mentioned that she had worked at the Mayor’s office and the guy who she worked for who was being promoted to COO and needed someone to take his spot. She told Lisa she had sent him her resume and he would call her in thirty minutes. Lisa says, “Thirty minutes and three interviews later, I was offered a job at the Mayor’s office.” Lisa had never worked in the public sector before and had this idea that the mayor was a celebrity. She found herself having the ‘imposter syndrome’ being afraid to be in the presence of the Mayor however, when she began work all that changed because she says, “I was thrown right into the wolves. I oversaw all infrastructure departments which was basically all transportation related issues which included, paving potholes, street lights, the BRT, streets & sanitation, and snow removal.” Lisa served as the liaison to the Mayor from the department. To avoid the chaos of having to fix things later, Lisa was always present at any infrastructure related issues. She says, “The moment the first drop of snow falls on any given day, I have to be there regardless of the time.” Some of the worst snow storms Chicago has dealt with in recent times were all under Lisa’s supervision. Lisa was also in charge of all cultural affairs and special events (which she asked for). Her first event was the guy who walked on a tight rope across the Chicago River. She says, [laughing] “He didn’t have our permission and the whole experience was terrifying but it was my first event and again, I was thrown right into the wolves.” She was also in charge of both Black Hawk parades, the NFL drafts and the protests held after the ‘16 shots’ incidents in Chicago to name a few events Lisa worked on while at the Mayor’s office for three and a half years. Lisa now serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the state of Illinois Department of Transportation.
Lisa is arguably one of the busiest women in the state of Illinois and she won’t have it any other way however; with a busy schedule, it is necessary to have some ‘me’ time. I asked Lisa how she unwinds and she said, “I love to travel, it’s how I stay sane and it’s how I reset.” Lisa was recently in New Orleans where she tries to visit every other month. She was also recently in California where she stopped by San Francisco and Sonoma. In the last year, she took a trip to Trinidad and Tobago and later this year, she has some international trips lined up. She may not always have the luxury of shutting work off completely even on vacation because so much of our everyday lives in the state of Illinois depends on her brilliant mind, but she ensures she always finds time to have a good time.
What’s next for Lisa?
Lisa’s position as the COO is attached to the current administration in the state of Illinois and as elections approach in 2018, she is unsure whether she will be in her current position past next year. What she does know is whatever is coming next, she wants it to be new, exciting and challenging for her. Finding a job for Lisa is not the issue. She is woman who knows her worth and value and has a clear understanding of what she brings to the table and as she says, “Whatever I do next, must be worth my while.”
What’s great about Lisa is her level of self-awareness, this enables her to make sound and strategic career decisions for herself. She may not always know what next but what she does know is what she doesn’t want. It is important for us as women to not limit ourselves to the confines of society. If Lisa let society dictate her career moves, she would not have all the accomplishments she has now. Her confidence got her into places some may have thought she didn’t deserve but once in the door, she maximized every opportunity given to her. We all don’t have to be business owners but whatever path you choose, BE COMMITTED.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rant about this amazing Goal Digger. Have a great Memorial Day and don’t forget to say a prayer for our fallen soldiers and their families.