Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Kristi Trail of Pontchartrain Conservancy On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Women do not always do a good job at looking out for women. I think all people have a bad habit of saying “those tough experiences helped me get to where I am, so why should I help someone else out? They will be stronger if I don’t.” That’s usually not helpful to most people. I look back at various points of my career and think if I WOULD have gotten help — would I have gone further or done better? I try to keep that in mind as a leader.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristi Trail.
Kristi Trail is the Executive Director for Pontchartrain Conservancy in New Orleans, a foundation dedicated to creating an environmentally sustainable, prosperous, and resilient region through scientific research, education and advocacy.
She is an experienced senior-level manager committed to community engagement, professionalism, accountability and results. She leads with excellent interpersonal communication skills honed by collegial and supervisory roles in industry, nonprofit organizations and volunteer service. Kristi possesses a deep understanding of scientific and technical environmental issues from decades of direct experience with field testing, laboratory analysis, reporting, risk assessment, and compliance matters with air, land and water. She earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Louisiana State University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am a lifelong environmentalist; protecting Louisiana’s unique natural resources is my passion. However, when I first entered the workforce as an engineer, there weren’t many engineering jobs in the nonprofit world, or at least that’s what I thought. I went to work in the energy industry instead (I am in Louisiana after all). I loved my work in that field, and I learned so much in that part of my career.
But as I reached my mid-career point, I took a step back and realized that the corporate world was not fulfilling. I made a conscious choice to leave the industry and go into nonprofit work, and I took the pay cut that went with that decision. It’s corny to say, but I really did follow my heart, and I’m so glad that I did.
My experience and connections to our local corporations have been extremely useful in my current work, and I have great relationships in the industry. It’s made for some fantastic partnerships because ultimately, I think these companies see now that their future depends on us and the work we do. It’s been very gratifying.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Our organization was founded in 1989 as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation to address the pollution and contamination of our region’s watershed. After years of hard work, LPBF restored Lake Pontchartrain and its basin as a healthy economic and recreational resource for the region. We then expanded our focus to include coastal sustainability to help restore our marshes, wetlands and coast. As part of that effort, we created and coined the renowned Multiple Lines of Defense strategy for coastal restoration and storm protection in 2006.
In 2020, our organization made the decision to rebrand our identity as the Pontchartrain Conservancy to showcase the accomplishments of our organization and garner continued support of our critical work. However, there was confusion as to who we are and what we do, and a lack of awareness regarding our successes and current programming. Pontchartrain Conservancy’s new tagline, “Science for Our Coast,” aimed to communicate this success and continued work.
The rebranding process was VERY HARD. There were a lot of people in the community and in our organization that were very tied to the former name, the old slogans and taglines, the old activities that we were known for. Transitioning to a new name and logo was a challenge for many of our folks. And being that we were all technical people, trying to think creatively made our brains hurt.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I came to Pontchartrain Conservancy from a giant global corporation. On my first week, when I could not figure out how to work something on my computer, I asked how to call the IT help desk. The staff here were like “what are you talking about? We don’t have a help desk! Phillip in accounting does our IT- ask him!”
What I learned from this is just how committed this team is — they have made do with the resources they have for years without complaint. But I also realized that this isn’t fair to ask people to take on extra responsibilities that aren’t within their roles. We have a contracted helpdesk now.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One thing that sets us apart is that we are a research organization, employing primarily scientists, engineers and technicians that study water quality and coastal issues. Because of our world-class research, we are seen as the voice of scientific credibility when policymakers seek guidance on environmental issues.
But the most unique and impactful work we do is in water quality. I don’t think people realize that we are the only organization in the Basin on the frontlines of keeping raw sewage out of our waterways, in layperson terms.
In rural areas and smaller towns, private companies and homeowners do not have access to a centralized sewer system or don’t have the resources to keep what they have properly functioning. Instead, many have individual wastewater treatment systems similar to septic tanks. These systems use pumps to aerate and clean the home or business wastewater before releasing it into a drainage ditch. The problem is that many people don’t realize how these systems work, or sometimes even that their home uses one of these systems. If their system isn’t working properly, it can release raw sewage into ditches, which can flow into their lawns, then into storm drains and creeks and eventually into our main waterways and the lake.
Our water specialists go door to door to educate people about this. Sometimes the residents don’t want to talk to them for fear of fines or penalties from their local government. We had a woman call our office one day in tears. She said she had sent away our water specialists because she was too ashamed to tell them her treatment system wasn’t working, and her family was using a bucket as a toilet. They didn’t have the money to make the repairs and they were afraid of being fined. She just broke down crying as she told our office assistant about this.
In low-income, rural areas this is not uncommon. We assured her that we could help her by referring her to local programs to get the repairs done and we could show her how to maintain it once it was fixed to prevent it from happening again. She agreed to have our technicians come back out.
Obviously, this is a water quality issue, and it’s a huge community health hazard. But even more than that, it’s an issue of human dignity. When people can learn how to take care of these basic needs, they feel a sense of accomplishment. And we’re really proud that we can help with a solution to keep people healthy, but also so people don’t feel ashamed and isolated.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our education department has built a unique program of creating curriculum for area schools. Most education curricula used by schools are purchased from national publishing companies without any input from educators in our state. In the earth sciences textbooks in Louisiana, the segments on wetlands and swamps discuss the Florida Everglades. Our education coordinator has written curriculum that is hyperlocal, geared toward specific areas of our Basin. We link it to field trips to the school’s surroundings where students see up close how environmental problems are affecting their neighborhoods and towns. This has been successful, and we were even just awarded an EPA grant to train teachers in green infrastructure mini projects.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I have varied experience. When I graduated from LSU in the 1990s, only 10% of engineers were women. We’ve seen significant improvements since then. I’m involved with groups that mentor engineering students and there are definitely more female students now. We’ve made progress but we have a ways to go.
I think the ideas girls have about their talents start when they’re very young. I hear girls in elementary school say “Oh, I’m not good in math.” Where are they getting this? In the United States, this is definitely due to cultural reinforcement. We need more female leaders, so girls see themselves represented in all areas of the world, in all careers and arenas.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Women in STEM are always starting from a position of defense. When I meet people and they find out I’m an engineer, they say “Oh really? Was it hard?” My husband is an engineer, and he never gets these questions.
Men are assumed to be perfectly fine engineers, but women’s qualifications are automatically questioned.
My first time going to an offshore oil rig I was checked in by a female peer. When I walked up, she asked if I was one of the new cooks. It was shocking particularly because I thought, hey, we’re supposed to be on the same team here!
To change it, I think we have to start with our kids. If we are encouraging girls that they can have the same careers as boys, then we must tell boys they can have the same careers as girls.
I also think we need to ensure that men are engaged in the dialogue around equity in the workplace. When Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” came out, some of my female coworkers and I created a book club to read it. We started reading it and thought, wait, we don’t need to read this, the men need to read it. Encouraging women to lean in is helpful, but I think making men aware of their own exclusionary biases is helpful too.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I think women in STEM are maybe seen as super ambitious and determined to be on a leadership track. But just like men, women have different interests. Some women aren’t interested in leading, and that’s perfectly fine. I think we need to ensure that all types of interests for women are encouraged.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Women do not always do a good job at looking out for women. I think all people have a bad habit of saying “those tough experiences helped me get to where I am, so why should I help someone else out? They will be stronger if I don’t.” That’s usually not helpful to most people. I look back at various points of my career and think if I WOULD have gotten help — would I have gone further or done better? I try to keep that in mind as a leader.
2. Be open, honest and transparent. If you can’t — say that! It’s a good trust builder.
3. Never go to a meeting unprepared. In my first job as an engineer, I went into my boss’ boss’ office and asked him if I could show him something I was working on to get his opinion. He said “Sure!” I told him it was a rough draft of some difficult calculations but asked his advice about the project. He looked me in the eye and said it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and I was wasting his time by showing him a rough draft. He even said it made him question whether I could do what I was hired for.
I was devastated, but this was a tremendous lesson in several ways. I never go unprepared for any meeting. I also realized that he enjoyed making people feel bad, and I learned I would have to navigate different personalities. Finally, I learned that I never want to treat people that way.
4. Managing people is about basic humanity. One thing you never learn in STEM schooling is how to manage people. But we all rely on others to get the work done! This is a critical part of leadership that just isn’t taught. About 50% of my day is listening to people asking for advice on how to navigate non-work-related issues that are affecting their work. I understand this; we’re all human. When in these situations, I try to think about what I would want to hear if I were on the other side of the desk?
5. Trust your instincts. As women, we are so conditioned to not trust ourselves that sometimes we listen too much to others’ opinions on what we should be doing. It’s okay to let go of these ideas and move forward with what you know in your heart and head is the right path.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Sometimes women get caught in a trap when they move into leadership roles. Because traditionally only men are respected in those positions, women might, consciously or not behave how they believe a man would. I’ve even seen this sometimes result in female leaders not helping other women because they aren’t behaving as they think “real” leaders act. I’d encourage women leaders to recognize all strengths and types of behavior, and always look out for other women in leadership.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
First, always take a step back and understand how the team works and operates. Be sure you understand what others need rather than telling them yourself. Then once you have a good understanding, use that information, and implement a work plan that incorporates the team’s skills and interests. We can’t succeed as leaders unless everyone on the team is successful, so do your best to make your team members great.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
At my previous job, I had a mentor who was very kind and patient and taught me a lot. I think he made me a different person, and his mentorship made me a leader.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I really do care about Louisiana. I wouldn’t work like this if I didn’t love it. I want the best for my kids, and I hope they stay here in my home state for their education and get good careers. But if we don’t stabilize our coast, none of our kids will have a future in Louisiana. I’m working hard to make sure they have that option because this really is a magical place.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Louisiana is known for fun, for our food, music, sports, and culture. People come from all over the world to experience our way of life. But they don’t see the unique challenges we have if they stay in the French Quarter and don’t go out to see the swamps and marshes and see directly how much land loss we are experiencing.
We get something like 10 million visitors a year just to New Orleans. This is two and a half times the entire population of the state. If all these visitors could really see and be engaged in the issue of coastal erosion, I think it would make a real difference. We recently hosted college football players who were in town for a bowl game that came and helped us plant trees in the marsh. New Orleans often has volunteer groups that come to the city and do a day of service, and they might help pack meals for the homeless, or paint over graffiti, or things like that. All of that is wonderful; we need those things done as well. But those are issues in most cities in the US. I’d really like to see more visitors understand that we have a unique and urgent set of problems here that other places don’t have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with many small groups of committed people that have made changes in one way or another. I believe wholeheartedly that this works because I’ve seen it firsthand.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’m really impressed with Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. I think her leadership style is a great model for how women can work with all types of people, lead effectively and still maintain their roles as moms. She’s someone I’d want to chat with to be inspired or to learn from.
I also really want to meet with Sunnyvale City Planner Michelle King and Jeff Holzman, Google’s chief real estate developer. Google is building a new campus in a flood plain on San Francisco Bay, and officials are planning a levee to protect that area against sea-level rise. I’d like to talk with them and give them all the evidence and research we have to show that levees aren’t enough. Louisiana has learned the hard way that you can’t out-engineer Mother Nature.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.