Premier Traveler Further Inspires Us With Unique Insight From Two Compelling Women Renowned in Their Fields

Culminating the year's profiles are two Compelling Women renowned in fields where females are still relatively rare: aerospace and photojournalism.

"Most Compelling Women 2014"  While Anne Toulouse never thought hard science was her strong suit, she found that the vastly diverse Boeing Company was a place where her keen mind and social intelligence could thrive. And although Alison Wright has been a world traveler since childhood, her deepest journey has been seeking an emotional connection with the women and children she photographs in those far flung spots—work that has earned her the highest accolades of her profession. Most important, both women champion causes that promise lasting social impact: Wright has created the Faces of Hope Fund that gives back to the communities she photographs, and Toulouse is hard at work on the Boeing Centennial, which will reveal how this company’s rich history has influenced world events.                                                            By Janet Forman

Anne Toulouse

Vice President Global Brand Management & Advertising, The Boeing Company

As the eldest of seven daughters with a busy working mom, Anne Toulouse learned three crucial lessons during her childhood. One: “I learned how to negotiate,” Toulouse recalls. Two: “I learned you couldn’t just sit back if you wanted something done.” And three, very early on, Toulouse mastered one of the most complex life skills of all: “I learned to be organized.” Before she could lead her sisters to a day of fun at the pool, her mother, a career RN, would ask her, “Have you cooked dinner? Have you cleaned up?” “So I got smarter,” she remembers, “and decided to do those things the night before or early in the morning, so when my mom asked, I could say, ‘It’s already done!’”

Working with the Military

Yet even growing up in an all-girl clan without brothers to take on the “boy chores,” Toulouse admits she never did hone her tech skills. “I mowed the lawn, did some basic repairs, and even mowed the neighbors’ lawns for extra money,” she tells us. “But I have to be honest—my science teachers from grade school would be horrified to know I’m working in aerospace!”

After college, a successful internship followed by a job with the Air Force led Toulouse to the field of communications. Here, she found working for the military a far different experience than most outsiders might expect. Instead of being a restrictive workplace, she found a tremendously rich environment in which to learn the business. “In the Air Force, they assumed you knew what you were doing unless you proved otherwise,” she explains. “At a fairly young age, people would trust you and take the time to teach you, whereas in the corporate world, people assume you don’t know what you’re doing until you prove yourself.”

At Boeing

“The transition from Air Force public affairs to the corporate world was easy in terms of the actual work I did,” Toulouse concedes. “But the corporate environment—I won’t say it was a struggle, but it was very different.” The biggest challenge, she acknowledges, was gaining credibility. “You have to build it, and you can only do that day-by-day in everything you do. It was only after about two years that I could see where I was starting to make a difference.”

Toulouse rose steadily through the corporate ranks, in part due to this kind of persistence, and quite likely because even without a background in technology, she thinks like a scientist. “I find I’m attracted to complex, difficult, intellectually stimulating projects and challenges,” she admits, “and I seem to find myself either in those situations, or looking for those situations, or having those situations come to me.” Soon, Toulouse began meeting women at Boeing who had managed to forge a place on the technical side, “and found them absolutely fascinating.”

Women have always flourished at Boeing, in part because this vast and diverse company offers plentiful opportunities outside the technical sector. The roots of this diverse work force go back to founder Bill Boeing, who keenly appreciated the skills that were once considered part of the “female domain,” and gave women crucial jobs. In 1916, he hired Rosie Farrar and other expert seamstresses to stitch the fabric for Boeing’s first biplanes. Helen Holcombe, who started work in 1917 as the first woman in the drafting department, helped build aircraft for World War I, while bookkeeper-turned-accountant Mary Dawn, who came aboard in 1918, helped establish the accounting system for United Airlines in 1931. On the pilot side, ‘Speed Queen’ Jackie Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier, and Barbara Jane Erickson London—a home economics major turned Rosie the Riveter who decided that “flying was more exciting than cooking a soufflé,” according to Boeing’s book Trailblazers—became the first woman to help build and then pilot a B-17 during World War II. Bill Boeing was so keen on hiring women that by 1918, 25 percent of the company’s employees were female, according to Laying the Fabric, a video of archival footage that was created for Boeing’s 100th anniversary, taking place in 2016.

Toulouse has a powerful commitment to this Centennial, which she views as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share the company’s heritage. “Boeing has a rich history that mirrors so many world events,” she explains, “and I’ve had a great opportunity to touch history here, including collaborating with a former Apollo astronaut and working on rocket launches.” Toulouse is determined to use every moment of this Centennial year to help Boeing’s fans and employees—past, present, and future—understand this company’s impact, and inspire them to pass on its legacy.

Gender or Leadership Style?

Toulouse’s ardor for the Centennial efforts reveals something of a lioness in her leadership style. Gender may play a part in her management approach, she allows, “but I think it comes more from your early foundations, your experiences, your values.” Beyond her childhood responsibilities, Toulouse has been shaped by motherhood. “My 12 year-old son stretches me more than I ever imagined,” she confides. “He gives me the lowest lows, and more joy than I’ve ever known. It’s a gift every day.”

Advice to Young Women: Distinctly Low Tech

These days, aerospace is far more open to females than it was when Toulouse started. “I see so many women leading major programs and running companies,” she happily reveals. Still, her advice to young women on the rise is decidedly straightforward. “Be true to yourself,” she stresses. “I think that can be hard, particularly when you’re starting out in a field where everyone may not be just like you. So finding your voice as a person, finding your voice as a leader, means bringing your authentic self to the table. You can’t throw that away, and you shouldn’t. It’s good to learn from leaders,” she adds, “but trying to mimic them is going to set you up for failure.” That said, there has to be a balance. “I’m still learning every day,” she reflects. “I always tell people, by the time I’m ready to retire, I’ll finally have it all figured out.”                           By Janet Forman 

Alison Wright

Photographer, Author and Faces of Hope Founder

“Sometimes making a photo simply doesn’t feel like enough,” says photographer Alison Wright.  “As photojournalists, we were brought up to not get emotionally involved.  But I want to get involved, and image-making is an in-credibly powerful tool.”

Born to a British mother who was a flight attendant for Pan Am, and a Belgian research chemist father, Wright had travel in her blood. It was the gift of a Kodak Instamatic on her tenth birthday that led to her love of taking pictures. “Photographing people helped me to overcome my innate shyness. Later, it became a key to the door of other people’s lives,” she recalls.

Over the years, Wright has developed her own brand of social documentary/humanitarian photography. Her talent, and how she has harnessed it to make a difference in the lives of others, is attested to in part by her winning a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award, being named National Geographic Traveler of the Year for 2013, and being selected as one of Premier Traveler’s Most Compelling Women in the Travel Industry in 2014.

“The most rewarding aspect of my work is creating awareness of the plight of others, and in some small way helping or inspiring someone else,” she states. “My hope is that I may have made a difference, no matter how small, for the betterment of others --to bear witness to the lives of others.”

The Accident That Changed Her Life

On January 2, 2000, Wright’s own life was almost ended by a deadly bus accident on a remote jungle road in Laos. Sitting directly at the point of impact, she was pinned by a huge logging truck that sheared the bus in half. Of those who survived, she suffered the most extensive injuries: multiple broken bones, collapsed lungs, a herniated heart, and more life-threatening internal damage.

Locals brought her to their village and sewed her damaged body together with a needle and thread. There was no hospital, no phone, and no painkillers. Ten hours passed. “As I closed my eyes and surrendered, an amazing thing happened: my body became light and was released from its profound suffering,” she recalls. “Miraculously, I survived—with the help of two benevolent British aid workers who drove me eight hours in the back of their truck to Thai-land.” It took three weeks in intensive care before she was medevaced to San Francisco, followed by thirty surgeries and years of rehabilitation. But eventually, she regained her strength and will—and promptly went off to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“So, I’m really here because of the kindness of strangers,” says Wright now. “I think about that every day of my life.” The experience led her to write her 2009 memoir, Learning to Breathe: One Woman’s Journey of Spirit and Survival.​

Giving Back

Created in 2009, the Faces of Hope Fund was inspired by Alison’s near death experience, and represents the convergence of her photography and philanthropy. The Fund’s mission is to bring medical care and education to the communities she photographs.

“Through my photography I strive to create global awareness, and through Faces of Hope Fund, to give back in some small way to the communities that I photograph,” she explains. The first thing she did was to bring five American doctors from Dr2Dr, and $10,000 worth of medical supplies, to the villagers in Laos who had saved her life.

Other campaigns have focused on the tangible needs she identifies in the communities she photographs—including tents for refugees in Haiti, funding for a mobile medical unit for Burmese refugees, and piglets for families in Nepal, to enable them to survive without having to sell their daughters into sex trafficking.   

“So little money can do so much in these countries,” she affirms.  “Every day, I remember that I’m alive because of the kindness of strangers, and I want to give back in some way. I was already doing a lot of social documentary/humanitarian photography, but my experience brought a whole new empathy to my work, and is a reconfirmation that I’m on the right path.”​

Back to Nepal

Months have passed since the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal, one of the poorest nations in the world, on April 25, 2015.  As of this printing, the total death toll reached 8,841, with 22,309 people injured and over 868,000 family homes uninhabitable. When the earthquake struck, Wright, who had lived for four years in Nepal, was working in the Congo.  She waited until it passed out of the daily news, then in June, went to Nepal and spent a month documenting the recovery progress.  By then, she had raised thousands of dollars through Faces of Hope to help supply tents to protect locals during the monsoons.

“I was so impressed by the tenacity of the people. They have rebuilt brick-by-brick, all on their own. And the women have been completely involved in the rebuilding.” Wright believes that the best thing now would be to restart the country’s tourist industry, as it is the most important source of income for residents—and the places to stay and trek are back online.

“One of the many things I have learned during my years of global travel is that no matter how unique we may look in appearance, from the exotic to the mundane, we basically have the same universal desires and concerns, “ Wright stresses. “Our needs are actually quite simple: to love and be loved; to have a useful place in our society with some meaningful and fulfilling occupation in our life; to have work that will hopefully provide us with enough money to get by and put food on the table; and to enjoy education, health and safety for ourselves, our family and our children. The freedom to be ourselves is what connects us as a human race,” she continues. “It is what bonds us as mankind, a continued thread, as together we continue on this journey in the pilgrimage of life.”​

Continuing Efforts

Still today, Alison Wright never stops, traveling about three-fourths of each year.  “I’m looking forward to photographing for more nonprofit organizations, more travel assignments, teaching some workshops, and working on a couple of new books,” she says.  For travelers who want to catch her in action, she is leading a photo trip to Antarctica with Hurtigruten cruises in February 2016, as well as two National Geographic Expedition Photo Tours to Bhutan in April 2016. 

For more on Alison Wright’s life work, and to learn about her upcoming workshops and photo tours.                                 By Pat Savoie           

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