a playful illustration depicting four diverse women in a spotlight beam, with stars and q&a speech bubbles scattered around

Cambridge Systematics (CS) has benefited from a long history of women transportation professionals leading, innovating, and advancing our mission to improve transportation for the next generation. The Women’s History Month Leadership Spotlight Series showcases CSers who are helping to chart our course. In the second installment of the series, we’re sitting down with Lisa Destro, our Freight Planning Practice Lead, as we discuss her serendipitous beginnings in transportation, the prolific women in her family who inspire her, and what excites her about the freight world. Lisa has over 10 years of experience in freight and rail projects with expertise in freight planning and operations. 

“We’re very fortunate to have a nationally recognized freight and rail expert like Lisa at CS,” says Brad Wright, CEO of Cambridge Systematics. “Lisa has led the development of several Rail Plans for clients across the US. Her extensive knowledge of the plan requirements, innovative thinking, and leadership skills have and will continue to elevate our freight practice to new heights.”

When you think about the trajectory of your career, is there a moment that stands out as a challenge you overcame?

Lisa Destro's headshot

I’d have to go back to how I ended up in this field and at Cambridge Systematics. I'm originally from the Dominican Republic, and I did my undergrad there in industrial engineering. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to the U.S. for my graduate degree and made it to the final interview round, but didn't get it, which was a definite disappointment.

That summer, I planned a vacation to New York. My uncle knew of my interest in logistics, and he had a good friend, a Dominican professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who led their transportation engineering program and was looking for graduate students to support his research. I didn't know anything about transportation engineering, but one of the professor's research projects was in humanitarian logistics, which I thought was really interesting. And because I had applied for the Fulbright, I had taken the GRE and the TOEFL, and I had essays in hand, so I said, “You know what? Let's do it.” I applied, and then I was in Troy, New York, in September 2007. It all happened very quickly.

In terms of overcoming challenges, I was used to being at the top of my class, and I had high expectations for myself to quickly adjust. Even though I am fluent, taking highly technical classes (like advanced operations research) in another language was an adjustment. There were a lot of adjustments culturally and geographically, and that first semester, I wasn't the top student anymore. I was used to my little bubble, and then suddenly I didn't know anybody and was no longer the person everyone wanted to have on their project. But I did figure it out – I made friends and worked on teams, and I excelled! I was happy to be there, but it was challenging and gave me perspective. Eventually, I gained confidence in what I was learning and the research I was supporting on freight transportation, which brought me to CS.

What about a moment you are particularly proud of?

Lisa Destro's headshot

A smaller moment comes to mind that, looking back, I give a lot of meaning to now. It was the first time I had to present to a CS client, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. I was working with Susan Herbel, who is now retired. She is a safety legend and guru in the transportation planning world, and she needed an analyst to help implement the Strategic Highway Safety Plan. She was fantastic in terms of mentorship: giving me opportunities and making me feel supported.

I've always feared public speaking - I'm just not one of those people who is naturally comfortable with it. But Susan asked me to present to this client and gave me all the tools I needed. I did end up doing a great job, and at the time, it was a big deal for me.

Now I look back and laugh because I've done much bigger presentations on my own. But that first time, I was in a new role and presenting a topic on which I didn't really consider myself an expert. I think as women, we put pressure on ourselves to feel like we need to know it—we can't fake it, even just a little bit. It was a lesson—a moment of, okay, yes, I can do this, and I don't have to do it on my own. I have people who can guide and support me.

Can you talk about any women or woman in particular who has had significant influence on your life or career, personal or professional?

Lisa Destro's headshot

First are the women in my family: my mom, my aunt, and their mother, my grandmother—three very strong-willed women who've been role models in different ways.

My mom is my rock, my confidante, and my greatest example of unconditional love, humility, responsibility, empathy, and hard work. She is a mathematician, and she was the first Dominican woman to get a Ph.D. in mathematics. She's a trailblazer in her field there. She moved on her own to Italy in the 70s, learned the language, did a Ph.D. in Italian in mathematics, and then came back and established herself as a scientist and educator, developing programs at her university to elevate higher learning for mathematics in the Dominican Republic. She became Vice Provost at the university where she worked. She has also done consulting for the government, educated teachers, written books, and developed the mathematics curriculum for public schools. She has so much love for her work, and she has the legacy to show for it in her students and teachers that she's worked with.

My aunt has been very successful in her career as an administrator. She had a successful career at UNICEF, working to protect the rights of the most disadvantaged children in the Dominican Republic, and, before that, in event planning and the hospitality industry. My aunt is a magnet of energy and joy. She’s got a wonderful combination of tenderness and strength. She has been my greatest example of solidarity, generosity, unconditional support, and friendship. What I admire most about her is her gift for bringing people together, building community, and creating spaces where everyone feels welcomed, loved, and supported.

My grandmother—my mom and aunt’s mother—got divorced early on from my grandfather at a time when not many people got divorced. I saw, throughout the years, the values she instilled in her three kids, which they, in turn, instilled in her grandkids. Her strong character, courage, responsibility, hard work, and faith. She was a pharmacist and chemist dedicated to educating and helping others. She taught high school and university chemistry and biology, founded a night school for adults to finish high school (where she enrolled friends and family to volunteer their time to teach), and founded and ran a volunteer organization to support a public hospital in the Dominican Republic. Her greatest legacy to our family and loved ones was her unconditional faith in others, her belief that everyone can give their best, her trust in everyone’s potential, and her unconditional support and belief, which are evident in the character of her three children.

I’m grateful. These three women in my life have taught me by example how to be brave, how to love, the importance of a good sense of humor, how to be independent, forge good partnerships and friendships, build my career, build my family and home, and support others.

What advice do you have for a younger professional woman starting out in this field?

Lisa Destro's headshot

I'm always a proponent of, "Don't compare yourself to others. Work hard and honestly. Be curious. Follow your path. Do your own thing."

Everyone's got a different timeline. There are all kinds of checklists nowadays about what you should have done by a certain time. It should be about being true to yourself and setting your own goals. For me, that took a while. I was someone who just went with the flow, and that was fine. But I think it's about going at your own rhythm, making sure you're doing what is good for you, and not comparing yourself with what other people have accomplished, either professionally or personally, people of your own age or in the same industry. Just do good work, be someone that’s good to work with, and say yes to opportunities. That goes a long way and will take you places.

CS talks a lot about the importance of teamwork. Can you talk about your experience leading a team and how it's impacted your perspective on the work?

Lisa Destro's headshot

Teamwork is the foundation of our success at CS—how we build and lead teams, and how we work together. It can be a challenge to learn how to effectively work with others and manage different personalities and work styles. For some, it comes naturally, and for others, it’s a learning process—and that’s okay. My biggest lesson learned as I’ve progressed in my CS career has been how to delegate and how to transition from being the one doing the technical work to being able to delegate to others and learn from each other. It's learning to understand the whole picture—who will be doing what, how it all comes together, finding people who can lead different parts of the work, or mentoring and training people to do so.

It's been a learning experience for me in the best way possible. It's an eye-opener when you realize how beautifully things can come together when you can shepherd the process and let everyone shine in their own roles. I feel very lucky to be a part of the freight and economics (F&E) team. A big reason why I like the work that I'm doing is because I'm working with this team. The F&E team leadership experience has taught me how a positive and effective team can be successful, and in turn, it has made us all more confident and capable leaders.

When you think about the future of the practice, near term and down the road, what are some client challenges you are excited to help solve?

Lisa Destro's headshot

Within CS, there are opportunities that excite me with the emerging work that we're doing. For example, in freight equity, freight resiliency, curb management, first/last-mile delivery, and LOCUS Truck, further developing and incorporating these into the freight and economics practice is very exciting for our team.

Another area we're focused on is making our plans more implementable—this is something our clients are craving—and making the analysis that we do as part of our freight-related plans more interactive and visual. We’ve found our clients are looking for support in tracking the implementation of these federally required plans, so thinking through our strategy to provide these services is something we’re working on.

In terms of our core competencies in developing federally required freight and rail plans, we're focused on developing training and standardizing and documenting our approaches in preparation for the next round of these federally required plans.

What do you think is important for your clients to succeed now and in the future, and how is CS positioned to help?

Lisa Destro's headshot

What I'm seeing right now is that clients are overwhelmed and short on capacity. There's a lot of work to do in terms of federal requirements for planning work and with discretionary grants in terms of putting together applications, managing those grants if they win them, and successfully delivering those projects. What I've heard from our clients is that, unfortunately, they don't have enough staff to do all the work that's been asked of them by the federal government. I think it's very important that we continue to keep the conversation going and understand how not to overwhelm our clients with everything that we can do for them, but instead, listen to their needs and come up with ideas to support them and not add more work. It's a matter of being able to align with our client's needs.

Thanks for chatting with us, Lisa!

Continue the Conversation

Lisa Destro headshot

Lisa Destro

Senior Associate