ENR News: Avery Bang--Young Bridge Engineer Is Changing Lives

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The daughter of a bridge engineer in Iowa, Avery Bang spent a lot of her childhood accompanying her father on bridge inspections—"even on holidays," she recalls. Now, Bang builds bridges in developing countries around the world.

Bang's globe-trotting tendencies started in college, where she earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Iowa. A semester abroad in Fiji began the journey that ultimately would take her to the helm of a nonprofit group, Bridges to Prosperity.

"I volunteered for a breast-cancer foundation [in Fiji], and there was one mammogram machine for the whole island," she recalls. "I gained a sense of my own privilege. It was a big takeaway."

Upon her return stateside, Bang established a chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). After enrolling at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for her master's degree, she met EWB founder Bernard Amadei, who would become the 2009 ENR Award of Excellence winner. He became her adviser.

BANG

"He's infectious," Bang says. "He makes you feel that one person can make a difference."

That's what Elie Homsi, a 2008 ENR Newsmaker and executive vice president for engineering services with Flatiron Corp., says about Bang. "She caught the bug, and now she is spreading it around," he says. "It's very contagious. When she talks about Bridges to Prosperity, she is very passionate and gets other people to join the cause. I'm one of her victims, as is Flatiron."

Ever since Bang took over as executive director of Bridges to Prosperity in 2008, the group's annual budget has grown to about $1.4 million from $150,000. "There's a demand for this around the world," she says.

"People need bridges. There is a generous sector of engineers here in the U.S. that have said they want to support this. I just happened to be in the middle of that whirlwind."

Flatiron became Bridges to Prosperity's strategic partner four years ago. Along with corporate parent Hochtief and affiliate firms, Flatiron employees last year inaugurated the group's 100th crossing since 2001: a 95-meter-long suspension span in Rwanda.

"Once we looked at all the [volunteer groups] out there, we decided this was the best for us," says Homsi."Avery leads by example. She's very hands-on, watching the costs, making sure every dollar is maximized. It is one of the very few [non-profits] where the return on investment is probably 90%. It's a management style that makes sure that our contributions aren't building bureaucracies."

Evan Thomas, a Portland State Univeristy engineering professor and fellow EWB alum who was named an ENR Newsmaker in 2009 for his overseas business entrepreneurship, also praised Bang's mix of practicality and social conscience.

"Avery combines a commitment to high-quality construction with an equally deep commitment to the communities she and her team work with," says Thomas. "Under Avery's leadership, Bridges to Prosperity has grown from a good idea into a professionally run, internationally respected reality."

John Hillman, founder of HBC Bridge Co. and ENR's 2010 AOE winner, says, "Avery's motives and passion for making the world a better place through our craft is something we should all aspire to. The fact that she has accomplished this at the age of 27 is truly remarkable."

Bang hopes to encourage a new generation of globally conscious bridge engineers. "It's about making kids realize we can make a profound difference," she says.

Bang is already making headway toward that goal.

"I have a daughter who is 16 years old and once wanted to do anything but engineering," says Homsi. "I had her do an internship with Avery. She got hooked and has worked on three or four bridges and wants to be an engineer. For me, on a personal level, that is a success story of Avery as a role model."