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On the Go

USC Marshall Alumna Stephanie Wiggins Takes the Top Job at Metrolink

January 29, 2019
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Getting people out of their cars and into public transportation is a tough job no matter where you live. In car-obsessed Los Angeles, however, it’s a daunting task.

So little wonder a USC Marshall alumna stepped up to meet the challenge.

Stephanie Wiggins (EMBA ’07) was recently named CEO of Metrolink, LA’s 26-year-old commuter railway, with 261 employees for a commuter railroad that covers 2.8 million train miles per year with 400 million passenger miles across nearly six counties in Southern California. She is the first African-American—and the first woman—to run the agency.

“It’s a humbling experience,” said Wiggins, whose first day on the job was Jan. 2. “I’ve been in transportation for 24 years, and I’ve always been engaged on some level with Metrolink issues. But to now be in the C-suite, working with a great group of employees, it’s an incredible privilege.”

But with LA traffic growing worse, an aging fleet of trains and the 2028 Olympics returning to Los Angeles, the agency is facing headwinds.

"Everything I learned at USC Marshall helped me in getting the FasTrak™ lanes up and running.” -- Stephanie Wiggins '07, CEO, Metrolink

Wiggins is ready.  After holding leadership positions in three of the five transportation agencies that make up Metrolink, an executive MBA from USC Marshall and an abiding belief in public transportation, she’s positioned to find and implement solutions. “We’re taking people out of traffic congestion and giving them a better option,” she says.

A Life in Public Service

Wiggins was born in Oakland, Calif. but didn’t stay there long. Adopted at 6 weeks by a military family, she moved many times growing up. “As an adult I’ve come to appreciate it. Diversity is so important, and because I got to live in different cultures and environments with different kinds of people, that has served me well in my roles in public transportation, especially when I’ve had to go out and work with different populations of people.”

Although public service was always in her blood, given her father’s lifelong service in the Air Force, she landed in public transportation by accident. After graduating from Whittier College with a degree in business administration, she spent two years working in Washington, D.C. before moving back to Los Angeles to start looking at graduate schools. To save money, she moved back in with her parents and took a temp job while studying for the GMAT.

“My first assignment was at a transportation commission in the Inland Empire San Bernardino County,” she says. “I’d never heard of a transportation agency.” But she quickly came to see its value in the lives of ordinary people.

“They dealt with hundreds of millions of dollars and set transportation policies that impacted people’s lives,” she said. “When I thought of my friends and family, and the opportunities they’d been connected to because of public transportation, it was fundamental. Public service is in my blood. And I wanted to learn everything I could.”

Graduate school? Wiggins tabled that idea in lieu of learning in the trenches. She was made a permanent employee within six months and then rose through the ranks, taking positions of increasing responsibility from across the industry’s sectors.

“I wanted to be on the policy side. I wanted to be a generalist. I added to my portfolio of transportation knowledge in the areas of joint development and goods movement.”

As she moved up, she noticed that there weren’t many people in positions of authority who looked like her. And no women at all in key decision-making roles. That would have to change.

Nearly 10 years after she put down her GMAT workbook, she decided it was time to investigate that MBA. Although many people told her she wouldn’t need an MBA to continue growing in a public agency, it was a personal goal, she said.

The Stretch

“I’ll be honest, I was looking at safe schools,” she said. And USC Marshall was a stretch. “I assumed it was too corporate, too C-suite.”

But then she went to an info session. “It just crackled!” she said. “I knew right then this was where I wanted to be.”

She chose Marshall’s Executive MBA program because she could keep working. But she wasn’t expecting to bond as quickly as she did with her colleagues.

As the 21st cohort of the EMBA, they called themselves BlackJack (after the card game, in which drawing 21 wins). In the first week, a professor told them that this course of study would absolutely transform their lives.

“I had no idea how much that would be true,” she says. “Within the first month I’d changed my ringtone to the USC Fight Song!”

“The diversity was incredible, with the different skills everyone brought to the table. The quality of the curriculum was superb. The sessions were timely. The professors were pretty incredible too, very dynamic. Some were even scary…in a good way!”

Fundamentally, she said, the program gave her confidence and exposure to the world of business and entrepreneurship—skills she would need sooner than she realized.

A little more than a year after she graduated, Wiggins took on a project that was in essence a startup (for the public sector): The FasTrak™ express lanes on the 110 and 10 freeways in Los Angeles County.

“I had to leverage everything I learned at USC,” she said. “Not only to turn that project around but to get it deployed and operational and marketed. Everything I learned at USC Marshall helped me in getting the FasTrak™ lanes up and running.”

What’s next? Big vision stuff. Getting Angelenos and visitors ready for the 2028 Olympics.

“One of my key focuses in this role is to ensure that we have engaged and empowered, employees,” she said. “They’re on the front lines, and they can ensure that we deliver an exceptional customer experience. We are positioned to be the link to regional mobility in Southern California.”