For Julie Cunningham, Army Veteran and successful businesswoman, public service is the “icing on the cake.” She serves proudly as the chief executive of a major national transportation advocacy organization.
“It [military service] was just what I needed at the time,” she tells Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview. “The discipline has served me well in my professional career. It makes you always want to do things with the spirit of excellence.”
Under her current 10-year leadership of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), Cunningham has emerged as a leading advocate for jobs in transit, port authorities, airports, highways, rail and small businesses in the public sector. And ever since serving on President Obama’s transition team for the Department of Transportation, her vision has broadened.
“Transportation, I believe, is the best vehicle for job creation in the country. You think about bridges, roads and airport expansion, high speed rail….that’s all jobs. It is jobs for individuals, and contracts for small businesses.”
“We are making sure our advocacy voice is heard to ensure people of color have a seat at the table. Ensuring a level playing field is COMTO’s overall mission."
Ms. Cunningham has more than 20 years of hands-on experience in executive program management, strategic communication, operational leadership, workforce development, and process improvement, most notably in the nuclear power industry, which she calls a perfect fit for a military background because of its “highly procedural, and mission critical” nature.
Cunningham was also able to navigate the challenging waters soon after 9/11, in her first months leading COMTO, a period of traumatic change for the transportation industry. She provided the critical leadership and subsequently, COMTO has established a national foothold of influence, broadened its original charter to include industries beyond transit, and posted significant public sector accomplishments, most recently with the Missouri Department of Transportation.
She has also provided expert testimony before the U.S. Congress, including the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Cunningham is currently gearing up for COMTO’s annual conference with legislative leaders on Capitol Hill on March 10. High-speed rail is clearly high on the list, as well as other areas of infrastructure development.
“We are way past due. But with that money allocated for high speed rail, we can count on engineering, construction and manufacturing jobs for our nation."
LEADERSHIP FROM THE START
Like many of today's leaders, Cunningham found her path at a young age. Growing up in Painesville, Ohio, just east of Cleveland, as the oldest of five children, she had responsibilities to watch her younger siblings. Although a shy girl, she found comfort in public settings as a cheerleader, and working at her local Sears store, where she also modeled.
After briefly attending a junior college, but “not really feeling” ready for it, she encouraged a friend of hers to be part of her next leadership experience, enlisting in the US Army. She served stateside at Ft. McClellan, Ft. Gordon and finally Ft. Riley, where she received invaluable lessons in leadership.
“I worked in the adjutant general’s office, in the promotions section,” she recalled, a role charged with coordinating the career growth of the up-and-comers climbing the ranks at Ft. Riley. “It was a wonderful job for someone who was enlisted, and as green as can be.”
“It was the full gamut of enlisted personnel, and the interaction with senior leaders of the military,” which offered significant exposure and training in leadership.
Looking forward, and thinking of her fellow military veterans, Cunningham believes their background, experience and leadership skills can be invaluable in contributing to non-profit organizations like COMTO and Corporate America. “Military folks have the capacity to multitask in a more strategic way. I don’t want to say the world of non-profits is crazed, but it helps to have folks with a strategic view, who understand planning and compartmentalizing.” She counts on a retired Army colonel, James Paige, as a personal and professional mentor, as well as an important consultant to COMTO. “Every organization should have its own colonel!” she says.
EDUCATION AND BOARD LEADERSHIP:
Ms. Cunningham graduated from Hiram College with a bachelor’s degree in business management. She is a member of the American Society of Association Executives and the Association for Conflict Resolution.
She is a member of the Board of Advisors for the Eno Transportation Foundation, which supports professional development programs, policy forums, and publications for national transportation officials and bodies. She is also a member of the Board of Advisors for her alma mater, Hiram College in northeast Ohio. She previously served as the First Vice Chair of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc.
She has one daughter who is married to an army soldier serving as a helicopter mechanic at Ft. Campbell.