#TodayinInfrastructure: The next interview for our partnership with Madame Architect , to bring you a series of interviews with the people behind and critical to innovations in infrastructure these days…and that also happen to be women.
Clarelle DeGraffe was appointed General Manager & Director of PATH in 2019, after serving the railroad as its Deputy Director. With thirty years of experience at PATH, DeGraffe has held a series of key senior-level positions. She managed the implementation of the Port Authority’s capital program to assist in the recovery from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and the redevelopment of the PATH station at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. In her interview with Gail Kutac, Clarelle talks about customer focus and everyday impact, advising those just starting their careers to carefully study their environment at every stage.
GK: How did your interest in engineering first develop?
CDG: My mother instilled in me that I can do anything I want to do, be whoever I want to be, and nobody can stop me, except myself. At an early age, that was imprinted in my mind. My father was a civil engineer, educated and trained in Haiti. He was a designer and worked on some elements of the Verrazzano Bridge. My mother said, “Listen, it’s in your blood, you can do it!”
I grew up in Brooklyn — you can hear the accent, right? [laughs]. I went to Brooklyn Tech High School. Not being too sure of myself since it was a technical high school, I thought well, I’ll try architecture. My mom said, “Engineering,” and I said, “No, architecture,” because I thought it was easier. But I had no passion for the creative side — everything I drew was like a straightedge! My architecture teacher would walk by and say, “Uh, no! No good!” So by the time I graduated from high school, I was fortunate to have experienced what the architectural curriculum was like and I said, “That is not for me,” but I loved math and science.
So when I went to college, I gave engineering a try and went straight through. Stevens Institute in Hoboken, NJ, was a small college, and I had a wonderful experience there, I got a solid education. Stevens prides itself on not just educating designers but educating managers of teams. They give you enough education in every discipline so that you can lead a team, and that was instilled in me back in the 1980s. That was my passion. I remember sitting in a class one day and realizing that I want to manage people. So I graduated and went straight into construction.
Someone once said to me, “Don’t let the voices that know you the least speak to you the most.” You’ve got to believe in yourself and keep pushing, and my mother was very instrumental in who I am and where I am today.
“Don’t let the voices that know you the least speak to you the most.”CLARELLE DE GRAFFE
In addition to learning about your passion for managing people, what did you learn about yourself while studying engineering?
Even in college, in high school actually, I began to feel comfortable in an environment that was male dominated. The majority of my classmates, even in architecture, were male, with male teachers too. My ability to function and feel confident in an environment like that began at an early age, and then I transitioned to the workforce where I was really the only woman. Even at Stevens, the ratio of African Americans to Caucasians was big, so I began to feel comfortable in that environment and to be able to function, to be able to socialize, to be able to just keep moving, and I transferred those skills to the workforce.
Where did you go after college, and what were some significant moments and key milestones?
I started working at the Port Authority right after college. I was a construction inspector at Kennedy Airport, with twelve big, burly guys from Long Island and every other part of the world – but they were amazing! They took me in like their little sister, they really did. They taught me the ropes, they took care of me. We were assigned different contracts and they would go around and tell the contractor, “Whatever she says goes, you hear me?” So they really helped to set the tone, build my confidence, and helped to give me a voice. As my confidence grew I began to understand that I have a voice in this, and I have a say in this. Not only do I have a voice, but you’ve gotta do what I say! So it began, and with that collaboration from my peers, and from my managers, I had great support.
A key milestone was 9/11, it was a traumatic time for the entire agency. I remember at that point in time I had been married a few years, I was seven months pregnant, and we were at the end of a construction project. We were building the Newark Airport AirTrain station across the US 1/9, and that was my area of responsibility. I always tell people, I gave birth to a station and a child in the same timeframe! After that, I did a lot of soul searching because when I’m in something, I’m all-in. I left the agency for about five years to take care of my son – that was a milestone for me.
“Stevens prides itself on not just educating designers but educating managers of teams.”CLARELLE DEFRAFFE
By the time my son was five, I was ready to get out of the house! I was fortunate enough to be able to come back, and when I did, it was at the World Trade Center. That was another major milestone, it was the project of the century because of the challenges. By then I was different – no longer single, I was married and had a young child, so I had to re-learn the environment and understand that my family was being impacted by my career now.
It took a family decision between my husband and I, going back to work on this amazing project [the World Trade Center station] that no one had done before, and that was politically and technically challenging. To have a meeting at 7pm was nothing – we had 7pm meetings because there was just not enough time in the day. But it was a decision that we needed to make and my husband was right along with me. He made changes in his career, and he had an opportunity to go on the night shift, so that we could parent our son ourselves and create the least amount of stress on our marriage and on our family life.
My husband is fantastic – he’s strong but he respects me and allows me to be who I am, so we could have those difficult conversations and come to some type of arrangement. He knows my passion for work, but he knows my passion for my family, my son and him.
Where are you in your career today?
I am the Director and General Manager of this amazing department, the best department in the Port Authority – PATH! I shifted over from construction management, which was challenging, to working in operations now. It’s not just building and then moving on to the next exciting project, but it’s actually staying on as an operator and touching the customer. I get to make an impact. I get to make a difference in riders’ lives every day, and with our staff, I try to make it a good difference, to the best of our ability. We have a great team of experts and they’re pushing, they’re driven. I’m in a good place in my career.
There’s a real customer focus in what I get to do, because we’re concerned. We care about every tweet. Some people say, “You can’t please everyone,” but we give our Executive Director a report of the tweets every night and we’re responsible. I carry the weight of that responsibility every night, even if it’s a troll! We care because we take pride in what we do and the service that we deliver, it’s very important to us. And the PATH celebrated 113 years on February 26, 2021. It’s been a wonderful experience – exciting and challenging. I’ve had good days, I’ve had bad days – I’ve had awful days [laughs]! But overall it’s exciting and I love it.
What have been a few highlights of your career?
A highlight was working on the World Trade Center as a Program Manager and then being promoted to Senior Program Director. I got to work on two specific projects that I owned. There’s a corridor that runs underground from the Oculus to Brookfield Place – that was mine, what they call a “package.” We did that work the entire time that Highway 9A was going over us. We had to, via contractor, dig up to 100’ down. Even during construction, we had to build walls, because you’re right next to the Hudson River, to keep the water out while you’re putting in the foundation and every element.
All of that was mine – the daily follow up, going down into the belly of the earth with the contractor, and coordinating with the City and Department of Transportation. So I was down there, and 60’ above you hear the cars on the plates and you’re hoping that the plates are in right [laughs]. It was a wonderful experience and I got an opportunity to work with Brookfield – their staff was amazing. They did the last leg of that project for us, the last piece that connects into their corridor. It was a technically challenging project and an amazing opportunity, just watching it happen and being responsible for coordinating with the contractors and the engineers. Walking through there today I think, “Wow, this is my corridor.” I’m very proud of that.
Who are you admiring right now?
The person I’m admiring right now is Michelle Obama. She’s a very graceful woman – not only beautiful, but graceful, even in the way she delivers her messages and communicates. She’s very strong. So she has all of these wonderful attributes and she takes time to give courage to other women and she has a diverse group of followers. It’s not just African American women, but she speaks to Caucasian women, Latinas – she speaks to every race on this earth – she speaks “Woman!” She speaks to us about the challenges of being a woman and about becoming who you were created to be, in every facet. She gives us courage, she speaks courage, she speaks amazing principles into so many women’s lives and that is why I really admire her. She doesn’t keep those qualities to herself – grace, beauty, and strength – but she speaks it out, to help build it in you, and I love that.
“…study your environment. Learn about yourself, study yourself, study your environment, and gain emotional intelligence.”CLARELLE DEGRAFFE
Michelle Obama has had a huge positive impact on the world. What is the impact you’d like to have? What would you say is your core mission?
I think my core mission is to help encourage other men and women. When I was in my 20s, I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m going to be very transparent [laughs]! I was like a deer caught in the headlights. So I love to talk to young ladies and help them know that it’s okay if they don’t know what’s going on right now – but you will. Just think about a couple years from now and where you’d like to go, and know that every decision you make today is feeding into that. So be very intentional about the choices that you make today. I took five years off to focus on my family and I am well rewarded because I see my son, who is in his second year of college, and he’s healthy, he’s amazing. He’s at Penn State studying engineering. As I look at him, I realize that those five years were well worth it. With the bond between us, he can call my husband and me – he calls us more than we call him!
The women who are on my staff, who have young ones, I speak to them all the time. We talk and I ask how I can help them. I work with them because I know it’s an important part of their life and it’s important to their children. I’m able to give back in that way, because I know what it was like for me. I had to resign – that’s okay. I ask how I can help those who can’t resign or take the time off – how can I, in my position, help them? What can I do to pay it forward, to help them recognize and to be intentional about whatever season they are in. That’s the legacy I’d like to leave behind – mentoring and encouraging others as they come up and helping them find their voice.
Is there any additional advice you’d like to offer for someone starting their career? Would your advice be any different for women?
Understand the environment that you’re in. It can be so different – I’m in a male dominated career, but for other people, it’s not that way. Be very self-aware of where you are, what’s going on. Have emotional intelligence and understand your coworkers’ personalities and buttons to push – and not to push! And your manager is very important too – how can you work to make them succeed? How do you speak their language? The overall advice I’d give is to study your environment. Learn about yourself, study yourself, study your environment, and gain emotional intelligence.
For women, know that you bring your whole person to the job. You’re not just an engineer, but you’re a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. There are so many facets of your life that you bring to the job and you’ve got to look at every area and make sure they’re all healthy or find ways to become healthy in all of those areas to be successful. Successful doesn’t just mean you get to the top – you could get to the top and be miserable because you’ve sacrificed to get there. You need to do it in a healthy way by becoming whole. It’s a lot of work, sometimes painful, and there are things you have to give up, but it’s worth it to feel whole when you get to that place.