An Interview with Avery Bang, CEO of Bridges to Prosperity
What in the world do bridges have to do with leadership?
Well, for Avery, they have everything to do with it.
Avery lives and breathes bridges all day, every day. And not just in the physical sense either. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Design the bridge.
Avery set her career in motion at an early age – but not because she necessarily planned on it. During her “quarter life crisis” as she likes to phrase it, Avery left school and a Division 1 soccer scholarship behind to fly to Fiji with the hopes of living a more altruistic life and working to provide breast cancer education on the importance of early detection to women in rural communities. And during that process, Avery was stunned to find how many communities they physically couldn’t get to. “But then I literally stumbled across a pedestrian bridge and I had that kind of eureka moment of something as simple as a piece of pedestrian infrastructure. I saw how simple this thing was and how transformative it was for these communities, not only would we be able to walk into a community to do things like preventative healthcare measures, but the kids could then go to school, farmers could go to the market and more. It kind of just struck me, but felt almost too easy.”
Build the structure.
And it would’ve been so easy to just think that and walk away. Surely someone else would’ve done that already if it were really that simple. But Avery couldn’t let that idea go, “I’ve now seen the light. Bridges are going to transform the world,” so she persisted, writing her master’s thesis on ways to standardize pedestrian bridges more affordably, durably and in a locally appropriate way. She also researched to find a way to bring this vision to life and found her now employer, Ken Frantz at Bridges to Prosperity (B2P). Avery positioned herself as the first volunteer of this team and is now the CEO of the organization a short 11 years later.
And thanks to Avery and the B2P team, “we have currently served almost a million people, across two hundred and fifty-two bridges…today we have over fifty people on payroll, most of whom live and work in these countries. And in 2017 alone, we built 30 bridges which will connect over 100,000 people.” And when you think about it, that connection of over 100,000 people will equate to a million-people crossing these bridges weekly – for years to come. “So as we keep to build our portfolio of work, the aggregate number of people were serving and the aggregate impact which I think is the most important part has a cool ripple effect which is exponential at some level.”
Test and evaluate.
Before any bridge can be considered completed, someone has to test it to make sure it’s safe.
And that is where leadership really comes in.
Avery has essentially built her career and her leadership style at B2P and has essentially had to learn as she went. So when asked what that looked like, Avery confessed that “I think being thrust into a position of authority, before probably I knew what that meant was a really humbling experience…it was hard, particularly when most of the people I was managing were quite my senior. And so just knowing that I failed so many times to get to the place where I am at today is humbling.”
Knowing that she had a void in having a strong, female leader in her field to mimic, she designed her own personal board of directors to provide her with different perspectives and help to fill in any gaps as she learned along the way. From emulating her board chair Elie Homsi and his unique way of showing up always aware and engaged including his unconditional way of being there for people…to her founder Ken Frantz who is a passionate storyteller and can illicit attention and gain true buy-in…to Abbie Noriega who is always willing to take on what is needed, roll up her sleeves and find a way to get it done...to name a few. Avery strongly believes in “surrounding myself with people I can learn from every day” and is not afraid to ask for support or feedback to keep on her path of excellence.
Open the bridge and celebrate.
Building a bridge is no small feat – nor is connecting a big vision to people who need it most and becoming a strong, female leader all at the same time.
But Avery Bang did it with grace and charm. Or grit and perseverance as she would say. Avery has fierce determination and believes that you can do anything you put your heart (and head and legs) into. She equates her approach to athleticism in that “if you want to be faster, run more. If you want to be stronger, lift more. You get out what you put in.” And the same goes to how she feels about supporting and inspiring her team. “Time is our only non-renewable resource, so for people to want to invest their time, I have to be able to provide something back and be proactive and think about what problems I can help that person solve…and be genuinely selfless in helping their mission.”
Avery is passionate and caring. She works to make sure her organization remains flat and emphasizes, “Everyone has something to contribute whether they are fresh out of school or have been working for decades.” She believes in giving “people a voice and an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way” as a leader and sets forth a vision for excellence that her team rallies to follow – and isn’t afraid to admit when they need extra support or help along the way. The work hard together, lift each other up, and celebrate the wins along the way.
So now that the bridge is build, then what?
Well for Avery, there is no end in sight. “Life is a journey. You don’t ever arrive.”
You build more.
Which certainly means building more bridges and bringing communities (and teams) together, but it also means inspiring more women to build leadership paths in STEM careers.
To Avery, STEM careers are awesome because they integrate analytics and creativity together – in a team environment – where you work to design something that has never actually existed before. We really help people and “are the one percent of the population that design and build the world around us” helping to make the world an easier better place and engaging with humanity in a deep way “understanding that the human is at the epicenter of the design process and in everything we do”.
But Avery knows that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Avery went into engineering school not really realizing what a minority she was as her father and uncles were all engineers. But when she got there, she realized that there are very high levels of attrition for female leaders in the industry and found very few people she could look upward to or emulate her style and professional path after. “I think there’s actually a need to see yourself in that person that you aspire to professionally be like.”
And while very few in her industry, Avery believes that women have a really beautiful way to lead and for many, it’s more of a shepherd approach, almost leading from behind with strength (without having to be the person out front beating their chest). Avery does not want to have a dictatorial style and works to “find a new way of leading and defining a new generation of leadership that doesn’t look like our father’s or grandfather’s” in the engineering industry.
To sum it up – what does building have to do with leadership?
For Avery Bang, it’s about bringing people together, it’s about passion and compassion, and it’s about vision, inspiration and forging new paths.
And I for one can’t wait to see how this exemplary leader paves new bridges for future generations of women in engineering and other STEM fields.
And because B2P is a non-profit, I couldn’t end this any other way than giving you access to donate to building more bridges for the future. https://www.bridgestoprosperity.org/what-you-can-do