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Stories of Leadership: Gail Farber

A Q&A with alumnus Gail Farber, the first female director of the Los Angeles County Public Works Department.
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SDSU Alumnus Gail Farber was honored this month by Union Bank and KCETLink in Los Angeles, as a Local Hero for her work advancing women in science and engineering fields.

Gail Farber graduated from San Diego State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

Farber is the first female director of the Los Angeles County Public Works Department, one of the largest public works agencies in the United States.  She is also the county road commissioner, county engineer, and chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. 

Farber has been an advocate for women in leadership roles and students seeking and succeeding in non-traditional roles.  She was instrumental in the development of the Women’s Leadership Conference, which annually draws more than 500 women from across the Los Angeles County, and she is developing outreach programs for students to encourage careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Farber was honored by Union Bank and KCETLink as a Local Hero for her work advancing women in science and engineering fields. 


Q. What are some of the highlights of your professional career?

The highlight and proudest achievement of my career would be accepting my current position with Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. In this capacity I serve as the county road commissioner, county engineer, and chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District with an annual budget of $2.2 billion, and 4,000 employees.

The Department provides vital public infrastructure and municipal services to protect and enrich the daily lives of more than 10 million people in Los Angeles County, stretching 4,000-plus square miles. I enjoy working with the Board of Supervisors, local, regional, state and federal stakeholders and policy makers in shaping public policy and delivering programs and services in an environmentally and socially responsible way that ensures the long-term health and well-being of the environment and the communities we serve.

In the area of watershed management, we work to provide sustainable water supplies and healthy watersheds while reducing flood risk to communities. This past year, we took our cause for clean water all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court! Where, in an historic ruling, the Court issued a precedent-setting opinion in favor of the L.A. County Flood Control District validating its approach to cleaning up water through a collective, regional approach. Watching our team successfully argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and receive a unanimous decision in our favor was certainly a career highlight!

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Q. What are your proudest achievements?

Above all else, I am proud of my family – My husband and I have been married 27 years and together have raised four amazing kids ages 12, 13, 21 and 22. My eldest daughter recently received her master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford University, and my son is graduating this spring from Harvard with a degree in economics.

Q. What’s your favorite college memory?

I have many fond college memories, but my favorite would be studying with, laughing with and making life-long friends with fellow SDSU engineering students; including classmates Agnes Weber and Jayne Dowda, both are amazing women and successful engineers that I have kept in touch with over the years. 

Friday afternoon beers with friends at Monte’s Den are definitely a close second!

Q. Who were your favorite professors and/or what was your favorite class?

Lots of great courses and professors, but probably the most impressionable was Dr. Stone and his reinforced concrete design course.  I don’t recall much of the theories or messy formulas he scribbled onto the ancient overhead projector transparencies, but he taught me a valuable career skill:  resiliency.

It was a tough course and several students would drop the course after each class. At the beginning of each class, the professor would gaze across the classroom of fewer and fewer students, pause and then look directly at me, and quip, “Oh, you’re still here?”

It made me determined to stick through the class and also determined to stand up to his ribbing. So after several weeks of “Oh, you’re STILL here?”… I fired back: “As long as you’re still bald, I’ll be here!”…. I successfully completed the course, learned the value of mixing humor with assertiveness and learned more than I ever wanted to know about reinforced concrete design! Thank you Dr. Stone!

Q. If you were to give advice to current SDSU students, what would you say?

Your education shouldn’t stop at graduation. Be a lifelong learner. Make the decision every day to give your best. Surround yourself with positive motivated people. Remain open to differing viewpoints.  You are the leaders of our future. Be as eager to serve as you are to lead.

Q. What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading “My Beloved World,” the inspirational story and autobiography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  A must read!

Q. What is your favorite book?

My favorite book on leadership is ‘The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. It is a timeless, comprehensive field guide for leaders. It went into press 25 years ago but the book’s "five practices of exemplary leadership" still ring true today:

  1. Model the way
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act
  5. Encourage the heart

The book is in its 5th edition and now features a great, interactive mobile application!

Q. What is your motto?

One of my favorite quotes: “One small positive thought in the morning can change the whole day!”

Q. If you won the lottery, what would you do with your winnings?

Hire a financial advisor! I would also accelerate completion of bucket-list activities that I’ve long postponed doing…including travelling (warm places), and running a family winery. I would also make a gift to charity.

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