In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, and this year’s theme, #BeBoldForChange, we are featuring stories from our leaders and employees throughout the month of March, describing their own bold moments in relation to workplace equality and honoring diversity and inclusion.
What does this year’s IWD theme, “Be Bold for Change,” mean to you?
For me, being bold means saying “yes” and not shying away from the opportunities afforded me, including becoming deputy mayor of economic development for Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States, and more recently joining AECOM to lead the company’s business in the LA metro area.
Being bold also means taking every chance to positively change people’s lives. Rarely does change come softly or accidentally. Working with bold women at AECOM and at City Hall, I’ve seen how important it is to be intentional about identifying the next generation of diverse leaders, promoting them and advocating for their success.
In my experience, no matter how much someone says they want diversity, it’s easy to fall into what’s comfortable. Choosing differently matters, and we must lead boldly. When I participate in town halls or speak to groups of employees, I have young women whisper to me, “I’m so glad that you’re here.”
What inspires you both personally and professionally?
Community service is very important to me. When I was in high school, I opened a fortune cookie that read, “Community service is the key to your happiness.” I kept that fortune for years, and when it was time to apply for college, I taped it to the top of my application and wrote my essay based on that fortune.
When I started working, urban planning was a natural fit. My undergraduate degree was in sociology, where I learned about organizations and institutions and their challenges. I wanted to address those challenges, and urban planning gave me the tools. Being of service and transforming communities, particularly diverse communities, is what my life’s work has been about.
Where does your sense of service and community come from?
Growing up, my family was typical of many African-American families. We were strongly connected to our church and our community and always conscious of being part of something larger. There’s a parable that says, “Much will be required of the person to whom much is given.” I’m fortunate to have done well in my life, and in return, it’s my responsibility to reach behind me and pull others up.
Who are some of the people who have inspired your path?
My high school English teacher, Donna Hill, taught me to do things despite being afraid. During my junior year, I was vice president of a student club and the natural successor to be president my senior year. When I discovered I would need to run the meetings, stand up and speak in front of fellow students, I told Ms. Hill I couldn’t do it. Her response was: “Are you kidding me? You’ve worked so hard, and if you don’t do it, then that guy over there will.” She told me she would be there to support me, but that I WAS going to be president and run those meetings. As a student, I needed someone to believe in me, and she did. For many of us, she affirmed who we were as African-American students, and as women.
What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?
It means having people who bring different experiences, opinions and styles to the table. We tackle some really tough problems at AECOM, and I want to have people who can approach challenges differently. Diversity helps us better reflect and understand our clients and their needs. If we’re going to build a better world, we need to better understand that world.
What advice would you provide young women entering the workforce today?
Be the MOST prepared person in the room. You may not be the smartest person in the room or have the best Ivy League credentials, but be the most prepared and willing to work hard.
What about advice to fellow women and male leaders?
For those of us in positions of leadership and opportunity, we have a responsibility to go beyond mentoring. Yes, it’s important to mentor, but what’s also needed is to actively engage and support people who work hard and have earned your advocacy. Find the people you’re willing to lay your reputation on the line for, and advocate on their behalf — push their resumes across the table, suggest them for the next opportunity.
Kelli Bernard is chief executive for AECOM’s business in the Los Angeles Metro area, where the global infrastructure firm is headquartered. Kelli has more than 20 years of experience in economic development, land-use planning, housing, redevelopment and public affairs. She is a commissioner for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an organization created in 1993 to address the challenges of homelessness in Los Angeles. She also serves on the boards for the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce and Town Hall Los Angeles.
Linked In: Kelli Bernard