How Dr. Josipa Petrunic is remaking the world we live in.

Women Special

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When Dr. Josipa Petrunic graduated university she believed the world was equal. Dr. Petrunic never thought that even on the cusp of turning 40, she would still be staring down the barrel of corporate guns held almost exclusively by a gendered and (Caucasian) racialized set of decision-makers. Unfortunately, the improvement in the situation has been marginal. The United States Glass Ceiling Commission of 1991 successfully identified that all women face a proverbial glass ceiling in the course of their careers which effectively prevents them from achieving leadership roles and C-suite positions. Currently, women still struggle with no pay equity, sexual harassment and assault at the workplace, restricted access to birth control, non-equivalent treatment in the health-care system, and non-existent diversity in decision-making at the top echelons of power in both the private and public worlds. The recent KonFarry analysis of the 1000 largest businesses in the United States as per revenue highlights this disparity- twenty five percent of the five critical C-suite positions are now held by women, which is slightly higher than last year, whereas the percentage of CEO spots taken by women remains unchanged at six percent. This is the highest reported number thus far; however, there is still a long way to go.

This is the view beyond this unofficial boundary when women like Dr. Josipa Petrunic refuse to accept limits and instead challenge them.

“Critics can take away your position, your job, your money, and your networks – but they can never take away your brain. As long as you invest in your brain..., you will always be able to find a new way forward that achieves more than your critics thought was possible.”

What Lies Above the Glass Ceiling?

Dr. Josipa Petrunic is the Executive Director and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC). She is an active leader of several national transportation technology trials related to zero-emissions transportation and “smart vehicles” innovation. Dr. Petrunic has been named Canada’s Top 40 under 40 by BNN Bloomberg and Cadwell in 2018 and Professional of the Year in 2016 by the Croatian Canadian Chamber of Commerce. She is an achiever of Clean 50 Awards- Advocates & ENGOs and a commonwealth scholar twice in the course of her education for her Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Science and Technology Studies, University of Edinburgh. Dr. Josipa has been a Member of the Board at InnovÉÉ, an electrical vehicle R&D funding body in Quebec, and she currently sits on the Board of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) Foundation. She continues to lecture in Globalization Studies at McMaster University, ensuring that she makes a difference in a world sick of disparity. 

“Female leaders can overcome roadblocks by investing in themselves and specifically in their brains. Your brain is your best tool. Investing in it will help you stay committed to your success, rather than exhausting yourself by only ever playing a supportive role in advancing the success of others,” says Dr. Petrunic. “Critics can take away your position, your job, your money, and your networks – but they can never take away your brain. As long as you invest in your brain… you will always be able to find a new way forward that achieves more than your critics thought was possible.” She certainly has. 

Her journey in the transit industry began as an academic at McMaster University with her post-doctoral research based on electric vehicle innovation policy analysis with a goal to develop an Electric Vehicle (EV) Technology Innovation Consortium from 2012 to 2014, that would support the transition of the automotive sector toward low-carbon propulsion systems in Ontario. At the time, the technology was so new that there was no clear “world leader” and the EV-makers were jockeying for nascent dominance in a market with a small clientele. Meanwhile, the government under the Obama administration was also implementing various American, Canadian and European investments in the United States to position countries to be competitive in this space. Nonetheless, Dr. Petrunic was about to face a typical problem that could have halted her efforts. “The concept was to coordinate more than 60 corporations into a consortium of actors that would pursue industry-led EV-related IP development in Canada. In the bidding process, we generated hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed project ideas for research and commercialization initiatives by leading EV companies in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia specifically. Problematically, Canada’s federal government of the day viewed diesel as the “fuel of the future” – as we were informed during the bidding process,” shares Dr. Petrunic. Meanwhile in Toronto, industry and transit members of the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), a national transit association, were banding together to formulate the framework for a technology innovation consortium dedicated specifically to transit innovation. “Some members of CUTA were also participants in the EV consortium I had built up; they included Bombardier, a train and aerospace manufacturer; and Metrolinx, Ontario’s regional rail and coach bus operator. Colleagues at Metrolinx approached me to discuss similarities between the ideas. Soon after, I pitched my view of the potential transit consortium to a sub-set of the CUTA executive team,” explains Dr. Petrunic. With seed financing from CUTA, CUTRIC was formally launched in 2015 with a vision of disrupting technological innovation in shared mobility and transit across Canada. 

Dr. Josipa Petrunic, Executive Director & CEO, Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC)

FASTER. SMARTER. GREENER.

CUTRIC spearheads, designs, and launches technology commercialization projects that advance next-generation mobility and transportation technologies across Canada. It also develops low-cost simulation tools that assist transit agencies across Canada and the United States predict how their electric buses, hydrogen fuel cell buses and autonomous smart vehicles (for first and last kilometer solutions) will operate in real-time on their roads and in service. These advancements aid to grow the low-carbon and “smart” technology eco-system across North America, leading to job growth and economic development over the long-term. CUTRIC’s headquarters is a dual-location in Toronto, Ontario and in Montreal, Quebec.

Starting up a tech-oriented consortium took 80-hour weeks, a “make it happen” attitude, and a “nothing is beneath me” mentality says Dr. Petrunic. Like any start-up, CUTRIC faced the challenge of not being able to offer its staff the posh benefits of larger corporations (no benefits, no pension, and few financial accoutrements outside of their paycheques) which was not acceptable to Dr. Petrunic. So, instead, she offered her staff ‘thought opportunities’: a chance for a “fresh out of school” grad to demonstrate their skills on the conference stage, or to meet with ministers in government, or to lead large seminar and workshops with a view to becoming publicly recognized as an industry expert in CUTRIC’s fields of technology development. “We also work to foster careers, we encourage employees to define the career they want and then to help us build that career pathway through revenue-generating opportunities,” says Dr. Petrunic. At CUTRIC, they involve staff in the strategic plan which allows them to invest in the future success of the organization based on their frontline experiences. This means it is imperative to bring highly qualified people together to build and maintain a strong, high-performance and effective team. One important factor that Dr. Petrunic considers while choosing team members is ‘accountability’: the willingness to take on complete responsibility of tasks undertaken even in case of failure. “An immediate sign that someone is not a good fit with our organization is when the person blames a colleague or external stakeholder for the fundamental failure of an initiative. Regardless of who has caused the issue (and it’s rarely just one person anyhow), a strong leader takes responsibility by always seeking to build solutions to overcome challenges rather than point fingers to lay the blame,” says Dr. Petrunic. “Leadership is a craft that takes constant honing, accountability is fundamental to that practice.” Clearly, Dr. Petrunic knows that for her consortium to exist her people constantly need to believe in themselves and their vision, and for its growth and development a consistent revenue-generating stream is needed. She shares, “we need to reinvest the small margins we do generate into revenue-generating IP in-house. For example, as part of our commercial development of the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial, we developed a simulation tool, RoutƩ.i™, built-in GIS software, and Python which offers the industry’s most precise predictive modeling tool for electric bus performance per route or block for transit agencies that want to know how electric buses and electric charging systems operate in fleets. The tool calculates state-of-charge of batteries, time to charge, electricity pricing, total greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and the total cost of ownership. Another example is deCarbonify™.” 

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Through this strategic focus, CUTRIC obtained and successfully executed major commercialization projects that include three cutting-edge initiatives: The Pan-Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Demonstration & Integration Trial (integrates hydrogen fuel cell electric buses across multiple transit agencies and municipal fleets in Canada), The National Smart Vehicle Demonstration & Integration Trial (integrates semi-autonomous and fully autonomous, connected, and electric vehicle shuttles/pods and buses across a dozen Canadian municipal jurisdictions) and The Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial that integrates standardized and interoperable battery electric and hybrid electric buses with high-powered overhead charging systems across a dozen Canadian transit agencies by 2022.  The design and launch of this trial involves three cities and four industry partners and is backed by Dr. Petrunic’s rock-solid determination. As of today, the project has contributed to setting an international standard for the electrification of transit buses across multiple cities ensuring that distinctive makes and models of e-buses can plug and play into differing models of high-powered charging systems. Hence, interoperability and standardization have helped to reduce the cost to taxpayers of “going green” by creating more competition in the market. “The project exemplifies the biggest risk I have taken in my professional career,” says Dr. Petrunic. “Had it not succeeded, it would have likely led to the financial demise of CUTRIC in 2018, because of the sunken upfront investments required over the previous three years to bring the project to a launch stage.” Her gamble paid off. Five years later, CUTRIC has proven a successful formula for helping transform Canada’s transit landscape. In February 2020, CUTRIC will celebrate its fifth year anniversary. 

Although Dr. Petrunic has created a successful business at a fast pace, there were some significant roadblocks that she faced which are different from what her typical silicon valley (Caucasian) male counterparts have had to deal with. “The biggest challenge I have faced is there are not enough people stereotyping women as more competent than men, but there are more than enough still stereotyping the opposite.” She mentions, oftentimes, the phrase is not “You can’t do something”. Rather, it is positioned as more of an implied or explicit threat: “If you (dare to) do something, the consequences will be severe…(or) people won’t believe you…(or) your reputation will be ruined…(or) no one will follow you…(or) no one will support you.” “These phrases reflect what women face,” says Dr. Petrunic. “It is not so much anymore that we are told we cannot do something. In my experience, it is that we are threatened with negative consequences if we do.” Dr. Petrunic manages these situations by reverting to a solid belief in her intellectual skills. “My approach to decision-making boils down to the following philosophy: I should always seek a reasonable amount of facts, then generate a decision based on my own smart assessment of probabilities and risks, make a decision and stick to it with stubbornness to ensure I do not backdown in the face of useless, unthoughtful, prideful or generic opposition. I believe in the value of criticism, but I do not believe in the value of egotistic opposition – which defines most criticism out there. I have invested in my brain constantly over the years. And I have invested in my self-awareness skills to ensure intellectual honesty. This combination provides the confidence to not waste time on the useless voices yammering on about why what you are doing is wrong while creating space to hear out the well-intentioned challenges to your ideas that could help you act even smarter,” shares Dr. Petrunic.

Dr. Petrunic also points out that the lack of upper-level female networks makes the entrepreneurial route more difficult for women. “Due to sociologically- and political-induced exclusion from top-ranking fields over the past century of industrialization worldwide, women tend to be less powerful, less well-positioned, less financially fluid and less well-connected compared to their male counterparts. Problematically, women tend to have more female friends; men tend to have more male friends – therefore, when you need a “pull up”, an “open door”, or an easy recommendation, you look around and find your female friends cannot offer that to you the way males can, not due to natural or biological reasons, but due solely to sociological positioning. That sociological imbalance means that, stereotypically, when a white man walks into a corporate environment, the assumption is he is probably reasonably competent. When a black or visible minority woman walks into the same room, the assumption is she is probably not. All of us fall somewhere along that spectrum of unearned privilege or undeserved exclusion,” explains Dr. Petrunic. “As women, we tend to be on the losing end of the spectrum because there are just not enough powerful women or powerful minorities in that corporate room who presume that black or minority women are naturally competent, and that white men are not. We will always have stereotypes.” Hence, Dr. Petrunic took it upon herself to overcome these challenges and disrupt gender norms as much as she considers it her duty to disrupt technological and mobility norms in Canada. In 2016, she proposed and moved forward with a Gender Parity Policy at the Board of Directors level at CUTRIC, requiring that 50 percent of their Board are women to ensure diversity of thought in an industry (namely, transit and public shared mobility) which is dominated by a female clientele. “I have made a conscious effort to ensure I create networks and opportunities for women in my employ by giving them, “thought leadership” opportunities that force them to grow in ways that are risky and challenging in front of public audiences,” says Dr. Petrunic. “And I insist on providing opportunities to women that were never provided to me in my career growth.”

Lead Your Way

So, for anyone who wishes to follow in Dr. Petrunic’s footsteps, she throughout her journey focused on three things that made her the impactful business leader she is.

  • Always have a plan: “I always have a plan of action and a goal because it focuses my energy. Even when I know I am bound to fail in pursuing the plan, I still pursue it, perhaps too stubbornly at times. But I have never regretted my plans because a life of regrets is not worth living, but a life full of hard-knocks is.”

  • Do not waste time:  “I do not waste time on social media for personal purposes. Corporate applications of social platforms are now the norm for information dissemination, which is fine. But there is so much noise in the universe already in the form of negative voices and energy-sucking habits, I do not need to introduce new sources of negativity that can be toxic in my personal life.”

  • Everything is resolvable: “In the darkest hours, I always revert to the fundamental belief that – other than death – everything else is resolvable. The world is made up of people. People can be reasoned with. And when they cannot be reasoned with, they can be convinced with passion, frankness or boldness. There is always a way to get to the target-it might just take longer and be a lot tougher and arduous than first expected.”

Dr. Josipa Petrunic is proof that anything done with passion, however challenging it may be, is achievable.

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