Women Bring Energy Efficiency Opportunities to Los Angeles
Who would’ve known that a major natural disaster – the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles – would launch an exciting and fulfilling career for Veronica Soto. As a young Latina born in SouthEast Bell Los Angeles, the pathway into entrepreneurship, and particularly in green infrastructure, was furthest from her imagination.
Then-Mayor Richard Riordan, one of the rare Republican Mayors with a campaign slogan “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around,” offered Veronica a spot on his team and a chance to help pull L.A. out of its recession. His challenge was for her to develop an investment program that would rebuild the Santa Monica Freeway and other broken buildings and systems, and create economic opportunities specifically focused on small, women and minority-owned companies. She imagined ways to maximize disaster recovery for economic benefit - something that is still considered groundbreaking almost 15 years later. Veronica’s first task was to identify barriers to opportunity and construct solutions; this was the beginning of her long ride into public works planning and development.
On the heels of the Northridge Earthquake was another infrastructure challenge. or perhaps opportunity… the 1995 Defense Conversion Initiative. Veronica was tasked with writing a proposal for funding to not only repurpose this large government facility, but to mitigate the negative impacts of U.S. military base closings --in California and around the U.S. --- on civilians, local businesses and local communities. Veronica says “ I relished the opportunity to introduce folks to how do public works projects a different kind of way… proactively and strategically addressing social and economic needs of communities.”
Veronica’s portfolio and capacity in public works infrastructure grew larger over time and with experience. She developed programs for disadvantaged and women owned businesses on the Alameda Corridor Project – a$2.4 billion commercial transit project connecting the Port to Distribution Centers to the region’s warehouse district. She performed a similar role on the LA Unified School District’s $20 billion school construction project. Along the way, she became more skilled and committed to ensuring that small, minority and women owned businesses had a stake in the investment opportunities.
Her experience offers keen insights into public infrastructure investments. She notes: “like it or not, the demand for public investment in infrastructure is being driven by the end-user “ The business community threatened to leave Los Angeles without a faster, more efficient ground transportation the Alameda Corridor. Parents public outrage over crowded , unsafe schools not conducive to learning.
She says “infrastructure investments, while perhaps propelled by outrage, can deliver huge economic benefits.”
Veronica also sees a change afoot. The next generation of infrastructure is green infrastructure. Since 1994 Northridge Earthquake, new, higher and more environmentally sensitive infrastructure standards and project are driving the next economy.
Her work with Emerald Cities Collaborative is a prime example of this. Energy efficiency is about improving buildings and making them more profitable. Building and public facility owners will increasingly look for ways to maximize limited resources (private and public). A lot is at stake. Including the ability to service the public, increasingly numbers of natural disasters, public health and safety issues.
“We can’t look the other way… but infrastructure investments are also a catalyst for economic development. We have to reinvest public dollar to higher levels than before.
She is also very focused and adamant about how these investments need to support the local economy. “People of color have been excluded from public policy. Diverse LA population cannot be excluded. Steering contracts to old white men can no longer be done. We can no longer tolerate excuses, artificial barriers to keep people out”. All public investments in infrastructure must be transparent. LA is in the forefront of this work.” She sees this happening in the construction trade unions where “all unions were white with a fraternal and nepotistic tradition” This is changing. Many skilled trades union are now diverse and there is more commitment to diversity. Her work with ECC in building a green building training program for small, minority contractors to do this work is part of the plan to change the economic landscape.
Of course, there remain challenges. Open participation… K-12 is a key factor for children of color to pursue careers of the future. But our schools are not preparing for these careers. We need young people to consider architecture, engineering to influence decisions about how projects are designed and built….
Well, needless to say Veronica built a career on infrastructure development and sees nothing but a growing demand for better, greener infrastructure and is diligent about building a better, greener, more inclusive economy in the process.
- By Denise Fairchild, ECC President