Leveling the Playing Field so Opportunity Can Thrive

At Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, advancing diversity and inclusion is all about creating a culture that connects people to the mission and removes barriers to opportunity and growth

By Ricky Smith, Executive Director and CEO | Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA)

Among the industries devastated economically by the pandemic, few can compare to the aviation sector. Last spring, thriving airports nationwide suddenly became ghost towns. Here at Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall Airport our passenger traffic dropped to about 3% of normal. And although we’ve seen a rebound to about 65% of normal traffic, and are reopening food and retail outlets at a record pace, there’s still much work to do to restore the momentum we had in early 2020.

However, what the pandemic has not disrupted is BWI’s absolute focus on expanding opportunities for minorities and women, both as employees and business partners. This is because we have created a foundation for diversity and inclusion that is not a program but rather a performance-driven culture that aims to offer everyone a fair chance to contribute and advance. Here are a few aspects of that culture we are using to cultivate opportunity and inclusion across our organization.

          1. Building diversity at the top — and letting it flow throughout the organization
            After returning to BWI in 2015 following several years in Cleveland, I remember meeting with BWI’s executive management team. To be successful we knew we needed other voices in the room. We brought diverse perspectives into conversations and at the leadership level. With a diverse leadership team we have been able to increase diversity throughout our organization. It’s nothing magical – it’s about casting a wider net, bringing in new voices, and then removing all unnecessary barriers so people can compete for different opportunities on a level playing field.
          2. Establishing a culture that connects everyone to the mission
            We all are very proud of the awards that we win for our projects, programs and customer service quality. But to me the biggest victory – which you never see in the press – is how we’ve changed the culture at the airport. It’s a shift from taking a kind of shotgun approach – reacting to whatever issue we were facing on any particular day – to becoming a performance-driven organization. We have worked together to create a strategic plan that serves to drive work planning throughout the organization. This is not a glossy document on a shelf – every employee has an individual work plan that connects them with the strategic plan on an annual basis. So, people feel part of something bigger than themselves. When they’re at home having dinner, and a story comes on TV about the airport having the most passenger traffic in the region, they can say, “I had something to do with that. Even though my job is to maintain vehicles."
          3. Advancing inclusion and opportunity by fostering cross-organizational innovation
            One strategy we’ve employed to help BWI advance inclusion for many employees is through fostering innovation. We call it our Council of Committees, which is made up of 11 different cross-organizational committees. Each of these committees focuses on matters like safety, sustainability, diversity, etc. which impact the organization across the board. Anyone can volunteer for a committee, and we have just two basic rules. First, only one person on each committee can be a specialist in that area (and not the top manager, either), to allow for free discussion of ideas; and, second, all committee recommendations come directly to me, so I can discuss them with the senior management team to determine how to implement.These committees have helped us innovate and have offered professional development opportunities for many employees. Imagine someone in custodial services or some other role who is an enormous talent but isn’t really recognized outside of his or her department. This gives them an opportunity to broaden their skills and increases their visibility to other departments.
          4. Engaging diverse business enterprises in the airport's success — in a sustainable way 
            BWI has long been a thought leader in reducing the barriers of entry for diverse business enterprises. Unlike other airports, BWI’s concessions program has always been managed by a developer rather than by a master concessionaire. This means that each store is individually owned and operated, which we believe allows for better service quality and drives positive sales and customer perception. It also gives us flexibility to be innovative. It’s why we were able to partner with the developer in 2017 to create a program called LaunchPad, which encourages new small, minority businesses to launch operations at the airport. Since it began, the program has helped nine minority- and women-owned businesses open at the airport.In April 2020 we relieved subtenants of the requirement to pay a minimum annual guarantee rent, so they just had to pay a fraction of their sales, a comparatively small amount. We also let them flex their operating hours, so they weren’t obligated to stay open during hours when there were no flights. Also, we extended their leases for two years to give them more time to service any debt.
          5. Sharing our experiences and energy to drive change in the industry
            As leaders, we all are striving to advance diversity, inclusion and opportunity within our organizations. Many of us also are contributing our knowledge and experience to industry groups that share these ideals. I personally have been active for years in the Airport Minority Advisory Council (AMAC), which is the only national group that aims to expand participation of minorities and women in the aviation and aerospace sectors. AMAC members have mentored and supported me – and inspired me – throughout my career. As chair of AMAC, I collaborate with the board of directors to keep AMAC focused on its mission in the midst of this pandemic. We also have been very engaged with leaders on Capitol Hill, putting programs in place to alleviate the severe economic impacts on women and minorities in the airport industry. And, finally, we were fortunate to have the ideas and energy of so many talented industry professionals who helped to propel AMAC forward through this period. I believe the engagement in AMAC is strong and makes me confident in our future and advancing our mission.

Let me close by saying that my role is that of an airport manager, but my ministry is making sure that women and minorities have fair access to employment and business opportunities in this industry. I look forward to my old age when perhaps I will see a commercial on TV that features a minority-owned company that we provided with an opportunity early in their startup. That achievement will make me as proud as any other thing I have accomplished – and that’s what my ministry is all about.


Andrew J. Ginther

Ricky Smith is Executive Director and CEO of Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA). He is responsible for management and operations of BWI, Martin State Airport, and regional aviation activities across Maryland. Earlier in his career, he served as CEO of the Cleveland Airport System, and as Chief Operating Officer for the MAA, where he helped to lead BWI Marshall Airport through a $2 billion expansion program. Mr. Smith holds an Accounting degree from Howard University and an Executive MBA from Loyola University. He is a graduate of several leadership programs and is active on several national and local boards and industry associations. Notably, he chairs the Board of Directors of the Airport Minority Advisory Council (AMAC), which works to advance participation of minorities and women across the aviation and aerospace industries.