Bridges to Prosperity CEO and Civil Engineer Avery Bang Connects Communities, Changes Lives
Our popular Women in STEM Series of interviews continues with Bridges to Prosperity President and CEO Avery Bang, who is featured in the IMAX film, Dream Big (now playing in theaters across the country). Bridges to Prosperity is a non-profit organization now working in 14 countries to aid local engineers and communities build safe, efficient bridges across sometimes treacherous rivers. Avery founded Bridges to Prosperity’s university program while still an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa. While writing her master’s thesis on building sustainable bridges at the University of Colorado, Avery quickly rose to a prominent role in the organization and was soon named President and CEO.
James Morehead: When did you connect with engineering as an area of interest?
Avery Bang: “My dad’s an engineer so I got a lot of support and validation from my parents. My dad would never have said ‘go and be an engineer’, but there are little nudges I’m sure all of us give our kids. Pretty early on I received positive reinforcement about math and science being cool and fun. There were also building toys like Lego and trips to museums.
“Engineering in particular didn’t click until I had a human-level understanding of what engineers do. Having an engineer for a parent meant I at least knew being an engineer was different from someone working on a train, but I don’t believe most people really know what an engineer does. A software engineer at Google is very different from my dad working as a civil engineer.
“When I thought of engineering as mostly being behind a computer designing something it wasn’t the most aspirational path for me as a 20 year-old. I hit a crisis point while still a student, having pursued engineering as a cool, heroic career because of the role models I grew up around, and felt that things I did well at such as physics and math weren’t very human. I couldn’t see how what I was learning connected to people.
“The big turning point for me was studying abroad and seeing the value of infrastructure we take for granted. In Fiji toilets that flushed was a thing – you had to go to a flushing toilet area. You did not get a hot shower by default. In particular the rural areas, where getting around was limited to walking, I saw a view of the world I didn’t have empathy for as a kid growing up in Iowa. I had a sense of what bridges did in terms of making my hometown more aesthetically pleasing, but not in the sense of being a lifeline.
“By working abroad I was able to see what something like a bridge did for a community – I was able to understand the ‘why’ of engineering. Why we do this work, why we sit behind a computer, why it takes so long to build something on a CAD system, why every minute spent on that work is so impactful to people.
“I don’t believe that the work Bridges to Prosperity does is more impactful that engineers do every day all around the world, it’s just what we do is easier to get your arms around more quickly. It’s easier to see our impact. I think that’s why Dream Big chose to tell our story.”
Morehead: How did what you learned in the classroom help you in the field?
Bang: “In so many ways. I can even look back to a simple physics experiment in the fifth grade. I had a really cool teacher who put pudding on a slide, then rolled marbles, and we compared different types of viscosity, and talked about what would happen if the material was heated or cooled. When you are thinking about how to build something with concrete you are thinking about how the environment affects the properties of materials. Later on in school I thought I’d never have to think about parabolas ever again and then guess what, the first thing you have to do when building a bridge is calculate the parabolic curve and the catenary curve. You need to understand the math behind how a piece of cable strung over a gorge would act without weight, and how it would change as incremental weight is added, and the stresses that would drive the size of the cable and how it is anchored.
“Until you understand the principles driving the ‘why’ it all appears to be magic. Having the background to ‘why’ puts applied knowledge in your hands.”
Morehead: What role did internships play in leading your own company?
Bang: “Being able to complement whatever you are learning in school with something in the real world is a win-win. My experience as a business student right now is so much richer because every day we’re talking about everything from strategy to finances to entrepreneurism and I can look at these concepts through the lens of my experiences. Internships mean that you don’t have to wait until the end of college to see the applicability of the concepts you are learning in class. Internships also provide a motivation to learn and a canvass to map school work on real world problems. Internships are terrific for experiential learnings like myself.”
Morehead: Walk me through how you managed to attain a leadership role so earlier in your career with Bridges to Prosperity.
Bang: “I wake up in the morning and I still don’t think I’ve solved the problem! It started with phone calls to the founder of Bridges to Prosperity, ‘Hi, I’m Avery, a 20 year-old engineering student who hasn’t yet graduated but let me help you.’ That led to more calls and ultimately getting the green light to build a bridge with my classmates. It was really just one step in front of the other, making that first call, then raising money to build a bridge, then designing and building the bridge. It really wasn’t so much about a long-term vision at the time, but there are times in your career when your head pops up and you see the direction you should take. The focus of my masters degree in engineering, on ways to standardize the bridge design to replicate them all over the world, was intentional. Studying at Oxford in the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, where we’re looking at social outcomes with business acumen, is intentional. I feel like I’m getting incrementally closer to solving a challenge, connecting everyone, that I’ve been working on for a decade.”
Morehead: What advice do you have for someone with an idea or passion, but who doesn’t know where to start or who doesn’t believe they have the experience or expertise.
Bang: “Grit and persistence are important. If you are going to go outside just checking the box or taking the role that’s given to you, you have to be prepared to fail fast, and fail often. You have to be prepared to hear a lot of “no’s”, or go in a different direction to solve the problem. It can be lonely and really hard going after something new, so it’s important to have a belief that what you are doing is ‘bigger than me’.”
Morehead: When you built that first bridge, that connected people in a transformative way, describe that moment when the first person crossed the bridge.
Bang: “To paint the scene for you – I’m in Peruvian Altiplano, high in the Andes, accessible after walking several hours and after taking a minibus through hairpin turns. It was there that I had an awakening, it was whole other world. We spent several weeks sleeping in a schoolhouse, working on our Spanish, eating tapas, unpasteurized cheese, and other local delicacies. On the inauguration day for the bridge the local village sacrificed a goat, as part of a ceremony of giving back.
“It really hit me when we cut the ribbon with the mayor, surrounded by the kids from the schoolhouse where we’d been sleeping for weeks, the farmers who had grown the food we’d been eating and the women who had brought soup to the construction site. I’m not much of a crier, but I was crying! I had arrived as an observer to a cool project I’d tell my grandkids about someday and saw how that bridge was life-challenging infrastructure. Most people don’t get that kind of a life-changing experience at the age of twenty-one, if ever. It’s something I’ve never been able to shake.”
Morehead: What advice for women pursuing engineering?
Bang: “Be persistent! Being a woman in engineering is an amazing career choice, and I cannot recommend pursuing this path enough! We need more young ladies in the industry, and if you want to truly help humanity, become a civil engineer.”