Otak’s Millicent Williams Wins DJC Women of Vision Award
As our industry becomes more dynamic and multi-faceted, the need has never been greater for those who shape the built environment to have unique perspectives and approaches to their work. It’s imperative for firms to not only recruit talent from a variety of backgrounds, but also to honor those who are recognized for their visionary qualities in the field.
This is the case for Millicent Williams, our Regional Director for our Oregon and Southwest Washington Public Sector practice, who we are proud to say has been recognized as a DJC Oregon’s Woman of Vision award for 2022.
The Meaning Behind the Honor
The accolade spurns multiple thoughts and feelings for Millicent, both tangible and intangible. What stuck out to her from the outset was the nature of the win—being recognized for inspiring others in the field. She says this comes with a sense of extreme legitimacy, “The things I say and do give women, especially women of color the belief they can work comfortably in and offer leadership in a largely male-dominated industry.”
There are real-world applications for this award as well. To her, it gives a relatable face to the work we do and reinforces that construction is not a man’s job, that infrastructure work in particular is not less sophisticated, and that a non-traditional background isn’t a deterrent to leadership in the field. In fact, she credits her traditional business education as her greatest asset, and knows she can make an impact with her perspective and existing knowledge about “the business of being in business.”
Learning the Ropes
When asked about formative ideas that helped guide her toward this achievement, she pointed directly to a textbook that she used while an undergrad at Florida A&M University’s School of Business and Industry called The Ropes to Skip and The Ropes to Know: a definitive work detailing what Millicent now calls her specialty—organizational systems and development. It instilled in her early on that successful enterprise is about people and navigating both the social and cultural aspects that go into getting any job done. It inspired her to get out of her own way, embrace assertiveness, work hard every day, be teachable, and uplift others in order to achieve desired outcomes. This is especially true for transportation and infrastructure, which she saw as a way to use her skills to influence the built environment in ways she previously thought had been impossible.
Things started to click as she got further and went higher in her career, “When I began to see cities function well as a result of my efforts, I got to then see the direct impact I could have on the industry. You can, in fact, do something about it if you see something that isn’t right, and people don’t always think they have that power.”
Contending with Perceptions and Realities
To Millicent, it’s clear as day that this industry is male-dominated, and even clearer that few people of color are able to achieve the same things with the resources they have access to. However, she credits her tenacious work-ethic and awareness of her transferable skills for elevating her to where she is today, “I was the type of person that shows up every day, that puts their head down and works, and most importantly generate quality results because of that work. That gave me access to opportunities.”
In practice, she also rejects the idea that transportation and infrastructure is as simple as a bus arriving on time. She explains, “The finance and engineering departments for transit agencies are just as crucial to a bus being on schedule as the driver. I’m not often out in the field on projects, but my understanding of the whole system and how each piece works in tandem is what’s important.”
She uses this in-depth understanding to inspire others, to get people to fully see where they are and how they’re contributing, or even when they’re not contributing by being short-sighted, “That in and of itself can be transformative, and can change the way that people see not just infrastructure but government operations in general.”
Doing Generational Work
Millicent reflects that she has worked in the public sector for the majority of her career and that her roles were often assigned because of how she “showed up,” but notes that true passion for her work formed when she got into infrastructure, which led her to leadership roles within organizations like the Portland Bureau of Transportation. She explains, “I saw an opportunity to make impactful decisions in people’s lives and that infrastructure is generational work, meaning my actions could have an impact 100 years later.”
A prime example of this is her current work with the states of both Oregon and Washington on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, the bridge in question being the connection between the two via the I-5 highway.
As the lead facilitator for the most high-profile stakeholders on the project, her job of making sure everyone is on the same page is incredibly gratifying for two reasons. For one, she’s playing a direct role in the upgrade of a hundred-year-old bridge where everything needs to be taken into consideration, both in logistics and in politics. She gets to employ her skill in navigating those two spaces from explaining the technical aspects like budget, to the political intersections between the states and their goals. Second, it’s an opportunity to exude leadership under pressure, and to further her goal of creating generational wealth through infrastructure, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime project that incorporates different disciplines and backgrounds of all types. I get to bring the totality of my skills to bear in delivering the results everyone wants, everyone needs out of the project.”
The Ceremony and the Future
Millicent is greatly looking forward to the award ceremony taking place on October 26th in Portland, where she sees incredible value. To her, it’s a tremendous networking opportunity where new partnerships can be forged, and new thought leaders can emerge. The opportunity to recognize women from numerous other firms who will also be acknowledged will help “open eyes and open doors” to future generations, especially those of color, that they too can make an impact with a nontraditional background that can in fact be a strength and a point of pride. The “vision” aspect of this award is especially important here because it allows people of influence, power, and ability to help everyone see value, “The night itself serves the whole industry because it’s a chance not only to make space, but create a meaningful space where all are respected for their work.”
When asked why she thinks it’s important to highlight and recognize women’s stories, she pointed again to giving people the ability to see, “People want to see themselves in the people they look up to, and this platform creates energy that allows people in the industry to see that contributions can be made by those who don’t look like them in terms of gender.”
She wants to see more women in leadership and empower other women to see that success in this industry is possible. Without that, “It’s hard to see for yourself if you don’t see yourself.”
A Closing Message
Millicent puts two words to other women who are looking to break into the Transportation and Infrastructure industry—“Why not? Just because something isn’t in your background doesn’t mean it can’t be in your foreground, so even if you feel like you don’t tick all the boxes, apply yourself anyway—because why not?”
Otak is lucky to have a visionary like Millicent on our team. We look forward to reporting on more of her achievements, and extend our warmest congratulations to her and the other women being honored with this award. You can view the rest of the honorees courtesy of the DJC Oregon here.