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Women in the Industry - Michelle Leonard

March 24, 2020 by Sarah Beidleman

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History Month, SWANA is highlighting women in the industry who have shown their dedication and hard work. In this male-dominated industry, each woman has had her own unique experience and we would like to share some with you.

Michelle Leonard is a Vice President of SCS Engineers. She directs SCS’s Sustainable Materials Management practice assisting public and private sector clients in the preparation of solid waste management plans and waste characterization studies, designing and implementing waste reduction, recycling and reuse programs, and evaluating existing programs to identify opportunities to economically and efficiently use resources.

Michelle has worked in the industry for 32 years and is a Past President of SWANA International. She also serves as Secretary of the Board of the Southern California Founding Chapter. Michelle has been involved in SWANA’s Sustainable Materials Management Technical Division since first joining SWANA, and eventually served as Director. In 2019 she received the SMM Distinguished Service Award. 

We talked to Leonard to get her perspective on her time in the industry.

How did you get into the industry?

Michelle Leonard (ML): In 1990, California passed its groundbreaking waste diversion law called AB 939. It was the first time California had mandated the preparation of solid waste plans. I wrote some of those plans for cities and counties in California, and that was the beginning of my career in the waste industry.

What is it like being a woman in this industry?

ML: Back in the early 90s, I was one of just a handful of women in the environmental consulting and engineering world. Working in a male dominated industry, there certainly were some challenges in gaining management respect, attention, and appreciation. The women that were doing this type of work had to prove themselves, probably more than men did at that time. We also had to deal with the “old boys’ network” and breaking down those barriers.

Many women started to network and established long-term relationships. Through professional organizations, we helped to promote women in our industry, and provided them a place where they could have a voice.

What progress have you seen being made in the industry?

ML: Certainly today, the situation is much different. A lot more women are in our industry in general, and more importantly are serving in leadership roles, both in the public and private sectors. We are not only at the table, but we are at the head of the table.

What progress do you hope to see for the future?

ML: I would like to see women playing a part in all aspects of our industry-- from the Boardroom to the truck yard, we need to provide opportunities for women of all interests and skills to engage fully in our industry.

Who is your role model?

ML: In general, the first woman that had an impact on my life was Billie Jean King. She stood up and demanded to be acknowledged for her abilities. She played that famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs. It was about so much more than simply defeating Riggs. She had always been an advocate for gender equality for women, and in playing that match, she launched her fight for parity into the worldwide limelight. She opened the doors for many women, not only in her field, but also in many fields. She made it okay to say “I can do this”, and to strive for something you want and something you deserve. I think that is what we all want – the opportunity to succeed, and to be recognized for our accomplishments. 

In our industry, I would say Kim Braun, the Environmental Program Manager for Culver City, California. Kim and I met through SWANA many years ago, when we were one of the few women on the Board. We both serve on the Chapter Board today. Kim is an incredible innovator, constantly designing and implementing new policies and programs that are at the cutting edge of our industry. She is a thinker and a doer, and sometimes when I am not sure what to do, I say to myself "What would Kim Braun do?". Kim is a huge promoter of women in our industry, and I highly respect her for her ongoing mentorship and leadership.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the industry? If not, what do you think it takes to be a pioneer?

ML: I do not know if I am a pioneer, but I am one of a few women that have been able to advance in this field, and also be able to help other women to advance in the industry. I look at my role at SCS Engineers, as a vice president and a member of our company's Board of Directors, and at SWANA and other organizations, as helping to develop and promote women in our industry.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

ML: I am most proud of developing our practice here at SCS Engineers in Sustainable Materials Management. SCS started 50 years ago focused on landfills and landfill gas technologies, which was groundbreaking work.  Seven years ago, SCS realized the trends in solid waste were away from landfilling and more towards sustainable materials management. We have grown this practice tremendously over the last seven years, and I am proud of our continuing growth and accomplishments.  I am very proud of the team that we have assembled here, many of whom are women, and many of whom will become the future leaders of our firm and our industry. I am also very proud of my work for SWANA. As SWANA’s International President in 2015, I promoted the development of the new strategic plan, which helped SWANA to regain its prominence as the leading solid waste organization, and to grow into the organization that is today.

What advice do you have for other women entering a male-dominated industry?

ML: I would recommend that any woman who is interested in the environment, materials management, and sustainability to consider a career in the solid waste field.  I would recommend and advise women to seek a leadership role, and take an active role in your own future.  Ask for what you want. Establish networks and connections with people that will support you along the way. Don’t take no for answer, and pursue your dreams and your goals. 

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