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Women Inspiring Rail: A Q&A with Sylvia Newell, President of CARS

For the latest instalment of Global Railway Review’s Women Inspiring Rail series, Sylvia Newell, President of the Canadian Association of Railway Suppliers (CARS) explains how being the minority within the rail sector fuels the fire within her to succeed in a male dominated industry.

How did your career in rail being and what does your current job involve?

My career in the railway industry began in 2011 when I decided to go back to work part-time after putting my career on hold to be a full-time mum. I wanted a part-time position that would accommodate my family life and enable me to professionally progress at the same time. 

During that time, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a part-time administrative assistant with Canadian Association of Railway Suppliers (CARS). I applied for the job, went through the interview process and was successful in being the chosen candidate for the position.

CARS was a very small association with two paid employees, me and the Executive Director. Shortly after I started my new job, the Executive Director (ED) decided to pursue other opportunities which left me as the only paid employee in the organisation. The board of directors asked me if I could take on more responsibility until they could find a permanent ED.

Of course, with my lack of experience and the real fear of rail being a male dominant industry, I was extremely nervous about this challenge! I knew that the association was in my hands for the next little while and it was “sink or swim”.

Eventually, an interim ED stepped in and mentored me extremely well for the next year along with the President. In 2013 I was promoted to Director of Administration and dabbled in government relations and policy. My skills became more diverse and I took on more challenges. My mentors pushed me beyond my comfort zones and encouraged me to keep challenging myself.

I am a very determined woman and I refuse to sink, if anything I am driven by being one of very few women in the industry.

I am a very determined woman and I refuse to sink, if anything I am driven by being one of very few women in the industry. It inspires me to just keep striving to put my suit on and join the men at the boardroom table. I would be lying if I said there weren’t times that I felt intimidated or doubted myself. There were so many of those instances, but I made a promise to myself that I would hand CARS over in a better position than I had found it to the new permanent ED.

To my surprise, in 2014 I was offered the permanent ED position where I was able to implement strategies such as increasing revenue, events, advocacy efforts and membership recruitment. By 2016 we had three employees working and both membership and revenue had grown tremendously.

In 2017 the President (a volunteer position on the board of directors) was about to retire and thought it would best serve the association if we brought the presidency in-house as a paid position for consistency reasons and to stop the turnover. Due to my performance and the current positive state of the association, the board unanimously agreed to appoint me as the new permanent President of CARS. I was humbled and so very grateful that they all believed in me.

As President I oversee all association operations and manage our government efforts. I have a wonderful group of skilled people working for me that will continue to take CARS to new heights. It is now my turn to be the mentor and let them lead.

What aspects of your job do you find the most challenging/rewarding, and why?

There are several challenges that come with my job. One of the most challenging aspects of my job is the complexity of the government activity. There are several topics, regulations, policies and trade agreements that may have an affect on our industry. Trying to manage all of them or filtering through what could possibly be impactful can be a very lengthy and difficult process.

Our government work does not only happen at the federal level, but also at the provincial and municipal levels. Many CARS members are located across Canada with significant clusters in Ontario and Quebec. Our outreach involves, MP’s, MPP’s and Ministers located in all the different constituencies in which we have members. When reaching out to the government representatives on behalf of our members, we don’t always receive responses or any feedback. This can be extremely frustrating as so much effort goes into researching and drafting correspondence.

We also have members that either reside in or do business within the U.S. which comes with certain challenges (such as tariffs, tendering processes when bidding on federally funded U.S projects). At times, it can be difficult to remain neutral as an association because what is beneficial for Canadian CARS members may not necessarily be beneficial for U.S. members.

I would say the most rewarding part of my job is seeing new ideas take launch and become successful. Knowing that the initiatives which the association implements are beneficial to members. Whether it be from a simple introduction, one of our events or from our advocacy efforts, I love hearing members’ stories of success, business growth and goal achievement due to the membership with CARS.

What is it about the rail industry that are you most passionate about?

Being the President of a supplier association means I get the pleasure of witnessing our members bring their technologies to life. This experience is extremely impressive and truly rewarding.

Rail drives passion within me for many reasons; first and foremost, it is the safest mode of transportation. Rail continuously moves passengers and goods safely and efficiently all around the world.

Rail decreases the number of vehicles on the road, which in turn reduces the amount of greenhouse gases that is released into the atmosphere. This mode of transportation is much more environmentally friendly than most. Having said that, the sky is the limit for this industry and there is an abundance of opportunity for us to make improvements.

When people outside of the industry think of rail, I believe they have a much more traditional concept that lacks the innovation and excitement that this industry includes. There is so many innovative opportunities for rail to improve such as energy efficiency, operational optimisation, and technological advancement. Being the President of a supplier association means I get the pleasure of witnessing our members bring their technologies to life. This experience is extremely impressive and truly rewarding.

What has been your biggest achievement/proudest moment so far in your rail career?

I am the first female leader of CARS since it started back in the 1970’s.  I have worked extremely hard to get to where I am and to get the association where it is today.

I have had many proud moments in my career. I am the first female leader of CARS since it started back in the 1970’s.  I have worked extremely hard to get to where I am and to get the association where it is today.

I will never forget the moment very early on in my career when the Executive Director at the time left to pursue other opportunities and I was pulled aside by an industry leader proposing that I was “in over my head” and suggested letting him take over the association so I could “grow up and do bigger and better things”. That was by far the defining moment that sparked my endless ambition and I was determined to prove him wrong… and guess what? I absolutely did. 

There have been so many successes and achievements in my career and I do not plan on stopping.

I’d like to thank that industry leader for being the one that fuelled me and the reason I kept going. I received an email from him recently that read “I hope you are keeping CARS running”. My response was “Actually it’s the opposite. CARS is keeping me running!”.  Something I’ve learned in this career is that you take the bad moments and turn them into opportunities. Use negativity as fuel and energy. Never let anything or anyone have the power to alter that no matter how discouraged you may feel in the moment.

Since being with the association CARS has jumped from one to five employees, moved into our own office space and tripled our in-house membership. We have implemented several high-profile events and membership benefits that have assisted our members in business growth. There have been so many successes and achievements in my career and I do not plan on stopping. The team I have in place now is driven, ambitious and very much a part of the positive achievements of CARS. I feel very fortunate and I am forever grateful for their support.

How has the rail industry evolved since you joined? What have been the biggest changes?

Since I’ve been in the rail industry it has become “smarter” with technology. Innovation has become a huge driver compared to when I first started.

Since I’ve been in the rail industry it has become “smarter” with technology. Innovation has become a huge driver compared to when I first started.

In the last eight years, I have seen a younger generation move into the rail industry. This is exactly what we need since many rail employees are preparing to retire, we need some fresh minds who have been educated in today’s society to keep up with the ongoing competitive technology and advances in innovation.

Among this newer generation, I’m noticing there are more women pursuing a career in rail. It is also wonderful and exciting to see women who have already been in the industry advancing into leadership roles.

Who within the rail community has been an inspiration to you, and why?

Over the last eight years in different stages of my career I have been inspired by many people. The first person was the late Gord Patterson, Interim-Executive Director at the time. I admired his professionalism and business sense. I learnt a tremendous amount from this man by following him to meetings and just listening to him talk. He was extremely intelligent and had a beautiful way with people. He pushed me out of my comfort zone and enabled me to see my potential. It was because of him that I got over my fear of public speaking. He encouraged me to present at our Annual General Meeting and lead our board meetings.

My next inspiration was a woman named Dale Williams. She was the Vice President at one of our member companies. I was so impressed with her confidence, leadership and professionalism. She was extremely well-spoken and achieved so much during her career. She is the strong, well-respected woman that I aspire to be.

To this day people are always inspiring me to look for ways to improve my leadership and tackle challenges. I strive to do my best, not only for personal growth but to inspire others to also do their best. I continue to love learning every single day of my job.

What can be done to diversify the workforce in the rail sector? What advice would you give to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail?

Rail is not just about swinging hammers and welding. There is human resources, marketing and public relations, sales etc… the opportunities are endless.

I think there are several initiatives that can be taken to diversify the workforce in the rail industry – with one being creating partnerships. There are so many organisations with which our members can partner in order to ensure they are being progressive with workplace diversity. As an example, businesses can find out what the indigenous communities are in the area in order to expand their knowledge on how to be inclusive of them. This includes researching cultural traditions, unemployment rates and customs. Providing opportunities to properly train will enable community members to be employable for the required positions.

There is an organisation in Canada called “Women Building Futures”. They offer industry-recognised training and affordable housing for women looking to enter the construction, maintenance and driving industries. They want women to know that the trades are a place where women succeed every day. Companies can partner with this organisation to help fill positions that have a shortage of skilled workers. They can help develop training specific to their needs and fund the programme. After completion of the programme they could have the opportunity to hire the women in which they invested. I think this is a brilliant programme and opportunity for businesses.

My advice to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail is to definitely go for it! It’s such an amazing industry with many career and growth opportunities.

Partnering with universities and having job fairs to educate the younger generation about the opportunities within the industry should be a consistent part of the plan. Rail is not just about swinging hammers and welding. There is human resources, marketing and public relations, sales etc… the opportunities are endless. I think the challenge is trying to make our industry appealing and sexy to those who are not familiar with it. We need to start to challenge ourselves to start thinking outside the box.

My advice to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail is to definitely go for it! It’s such an amazing industry with many career and growth opportunities. Keep an open mind, do not get discouraged and find a “mentor” or several that you can learn from. Remember, never stay in your comfort zone, as it stunts your growth.

If you would like to take part in the Women Inspiring Rail series, or would like to nominate a colleague to part, please email: Eve De Clerk, Junior Editor, Global Railway Review

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