In our Alumni series “What Are We Up To Now?”, we profile the distinguished alumni of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture & Planning (CAP). We sat down with Advisory Board member Lindsey Sousa, who has been with AECOM for the past seven years, where she leads growth and strategy for the transit and rail practice in the west region (which spans across 31 states!).
Tell us about your background.
Since moving to Denver in 2001, I have been in the transportation consulting profession. I had originally considered going to law school for environmental law, but I had a professor in an environmental policy class senior year who told us on the first day, “I am going to try to show you that you don’t have to go to law school to pursue this as your career”. That really stuck with me. As an undergraduate, you immediately assume your academic path should strive for a higher degree, which doesn’t allow for exploration, and just keeps everything linear. In fact, it’s not an “easier path”, it is just more straightforward.
I moved from Ohio to Denver one day before September 11th – sitting alone in an empty house with no furniture and no job. The recession shortly followed, and I landed a job and just took it from there. I always had a passion for environmental protection but knew I didn’t want to be an environmental lawyer fighting on behalf of chemical companies.
I formulated my current role at AECOM, which focuses on Growth and Strategy, a position the firm had not previously offered. In my role, I maximize strengths and foster client relationships. It was a risk to spin off and create my own position, but the lesson here is not to be afraid to create a new path for yourself. The keys to success are to have people in your corner to advocate for you and align yourself with leadership that supports you.
Where have you lived, and what previous degrees do you have?
I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and received my undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies, from Denison University in Ohio. I took the LSAT during college and considered going to law school to focus on environmental law, but I preferred environmental policy and moved to Denver after graduation. Then, I worked for Carter Burgess, which is now Jacobs, as an environmental planner. I started at CU Denver’s Planning Graduate Program one year after moving here and graduated in 2004. I have been in Denver ever since.
Tell us about AECOM.
I have been with AECOM for seven years. AECOM is a large infrastructure consulting firm of 87,000 employees with over 500 in Denver. We deliver professional services throughout a project’s life cycle – from planning, design, and engineering to program and construction management. We are unique from other infrastructure firms in that we have several business lines, including transportation, buildings, water, energy, and environment. What excites me about AECOM is our focus and investment in innovation and infrastructure. We launched the Automated Bus Consortium as one example, a collaboration designed to investigate the feasibility of implementing automated bus projects across the United States.
What are you working on today?
Currently, I lead growth and strategy for the transit and rail practice in the west region, which spans 31 states. I work on local and regional projects such as the current Colfax bus rapid transit project for Denver. Still, I also have a role focused on business development and growth in the transit industry across our markets. My passions and strengths remain to support teams in the pursuit of significant projects and programs. I have also focused heavily on diversity and inclusion efforts. I strive to accomplish this both in terms of our internal workforce at AECOM and ensuring that our projects consider equity and bring diverse perspectives to the planning process. I also prioritize mentorship and strive to present opportunities to our junior staff members.
What drew you to CAP and its Urban & Regional Planning program?
I had always envisioned that I would achieve some sort of advanced degree, but I hadn’t predicted what direction I would take when I moved here after college. The more I spoke to folks in my first year of consulting, the more I understood the Urban and Regional Planning Program as the best fit, as I enjoyed city and transportation planning.
What is the most significant thing you learned while at CAP?
My coursework that focused on growth management and policy helped me gain perspective on the profession of planning beyond just transportation consulting and included insights around issues that city and county planners face when dealing with land use and zoning regulations.
What is your favorite memory of CAP?
I enjoyed working in teams, collaborating, and building relationships, many of which I still have today. Whether in consulting or at local governments in Denver, many of my former classmates are now colleagues.
What are some of the biggest challenges in the field today? How might this change in the future?
A big challenge ahead of us is building a diverse pipeline of students interested in our profession. I feel the more we can help students and youth understand our profession in grade and high school, the more we can help foster that pipeline.
How has CAP changed since you were a student?
Serving on the CAP Advisory Board, I have learned that there are exciting new courses available to students, including the different challenges experienced by urban and rural geographies in Colorado. Taking a deep dive into addressing these challenges is exciting to me, as they are very distinct. I also appreciate that the studios continue to choose “real-world” projects and that professionals are brought in to consult and share their perspectives. Studio presentations are presented to stakeholders at the culmination of the coursework, and that students support the public sector with relevant and recent challenges.
What advice do you have for CAP students?
Take courses within your core interest and take classes that you may not initially feel may be relevant to your long-term goals. This experience will help broaden your understanding of the many different facets of planning. I took an excellent course in the Masters of Public Administration program on nonprofit management and loved it — venturing into coursework outside the department is also rewarding.
What value have you seen in engaging with CAP’s alumni community?
Many are now my clients! It’s a fun but unexpected perk. Now, we often look back together over coffee and talk about how our careers have evolved since graduation.
Congratulations on your role on CAP’s Advisory Board! What areas of focus have you defined in your role as an ambassador for CAP?
One of my areas of focus is further engaging the business community with CAP. At AECOM, we hired an intern in planning from CAP, and we are working to formalize this into a recurring summer program. I’d like to see the business community further engage with student studios, so students have access to real-world opportunities, as well as networking.
Can you name a particular architect or practice that influenced you?
Not necessarily one, but in high school, I volunteered for a non-profit, River Fields. Their focus is to protect the Ohio River. That experience, and my passion for the outdoors, really guided my path towards an Environmental Studies major in college. It is through that program that I learned about urban planning and policy.
Where do you go to feel inspired?
I feel inspired spending time in our communities, in downtown Denver, and in exploring other cities. As planners, we tend to look at cities from how they function and how people are moving through them. So, how can we take ideas from other cities and apply them to Denver and Colorado? All of that brainstorming is a healthy and inspiring part of being a planner.
What would surprise us about you?
Through my 20’s, I oil-painted, primarily landscapes. As my career evolved and I had children, painting took a back seat. I lost my mother just two months ago, and I’ve realized that spending time doing what we enjoy is vital throughout our lives (she was a talented artist). My goal moving forward is to reserve time for that hobby rather than “wait” until retirement.
This interview was edited and condensed by Agency PR