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Women in TransitTech: Aparna Paladugu.

In honor of International Women’s Day and throughout the month of March, Via is proud to profile a number of changemakers driving real innovation in their communities. Enjoy the story below, and then check out the rest of the series.

Via Transportation •
Challenging the status quo takes diligence, determination, and vision — especially when it comes to an industry that hasn’t seen a seismic shift since the automobile was invented. And, as it turns out, it’s often women who choose to challenge these norms. In honor of International Women’s Day and throughout the month of March, Via is proud to profile a number of changemakers driving real innovation in their communities and inspiring their peers. Enjoy the story below, and then check out the rest of the series here.

Aparna Paladugu is a member of the Policy & Government Affairs team at Via, where she focuses on federal policy and the West Coast region. Prior to Via, she managed policy and regulatory efforts at Zoox, an autonomous vehicle startup recently acquired by Amazon. Aparna has also served as an appointee in the Obama administration at the US Department of Commerce and on the policy team at the Human Rights Campaign.

What did 10-year-old Aparna want to be when she grew up? How did you evolve from there to your current position in transportation? Ten-year-old me wanted to try so many things! Everything from being a doctor to a sanitation worker. I was born with low vision and transportation has always been a huge challenge for me, despite living in a large metropolitan area like Washington DC which has robust public transit. Policies and investments that impact how people move around are critical for everyone, and I am excited to have spent the later part of my career advocating for transportation policies that are focused on increasing accessibility and equity, promoting innovation, and improving our environment.

What do you think are the most important qualities in a leader? Are there any leaders in particular you look up to? Having a strong and clear vision and being able to inspire and empower your team to execute priorities are very important. The most impactful leadership team that I have worked with is former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrews. Their leadership and vision for helping American business compete in the global marketplace, through a focus on trade, innovation, and data, translated into powerful outcomes for American workers. Additionally, while at Zoox I worked with Mark Rosekind, the former Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). His lifelong dedication to improving safety helped open my eyes to the impact that innovation can bring to transportation solutions. It's one of the reasons I am still in the transportation world.

What are the big transit challenges in your community that your team is solving with innovative mobility projects? I am not able to drive due to my visual impairment so increasing access to mobility is a personal mission. And I'm not alone — 1 in 4 adults in the US have a disability and our elderly population is growing rapidly. I am proud to work at a company whose mission focuses on improving accessibility in transportation in every community we serve. From providing wheelchair accessible vehicles in our partnerships to making accessibility an important component of our app and services, we work hand-in-hand with local governments, transit agencies, policymakers, and accessibility organizations to ensure accessibility is at the core of our efforts to improve public mobility solutions.

In your view, what’s the biggest challenge the transportation industry as a whole will have to tackle in the next 2-5 years? In 2019, 36,096 people were killed in car crashes on US roads — that’s 100 people every single day. The National Safety Council estimates that number will increase by 8% in 2020 despite decreased travel during the early months of the pandemic. Additionally, transportation is the leading emitter of harmful greenhouse gases, with 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from the transportation sector. We are losing people we care about every single day to these two harms. This is unacceptable. We have an important opportunity here — safety and sustainability can be improved by technology. These are challenges that the entire transportation sector and policymakers need to continue to address over the coming years.

Tell us about a defining moment in your professional life that has helped guide you on your path. During my time at the Human Rights Campaign, I worked on the 2009 hate crimes legislation, ‘The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act’. This was my first experience advocating for legislative change and coordinating grassroots action, from organizing lobby days for hundreds of advocates on Capitol Hill to tracking votes. During the process, I met Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, and witnessed her tireless advocacy efforts firsthand. This experience happened early in my career and cemented my interest in public policy.

And finally, what drives you? (Pun intended!) I wake up every morning hoping that I can bring something positive to the people and communities around me. From government service to helping autonomous vehicles enter the market, making an impact for communities of need is something I have cared about since well before the age of 10. I love that I get to spend every day working to advance transportation policy focused on accessibility, equity, and sustainability at Via!