This is one in an occasional series of profiles on the people behind the scenes who make Milwaukee work.
A quick glance at the list of past City of Milwaukee planning managers makes clear what many already know: architecture and engineering are predominantly men’s clubs.
Vanessa Koster is planning manager at Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. Koster has been with the department for 15 years, the last five in her current role. DCD is responsible for business development, real estate development, planning, permitting and public housing.
The city’s only other female planning manager held the position in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “When I first started 15 years ago, I very much felt like a woman living in a man’s world. Often, I would be the only female in the room. It’s improved a little bit since the time that I have been here, but more could be done,” Koster said.
In fact, Koster is working to improve gender diversity in her office by making sure there is a female intern each summer.
“I think about it as, ‘How can I encourage women to be in more of a management role?’ That’s important to me and I believe strongly in mentoring. I work with them to encourage them to go into professional management careers,” Koster said.
Koster was born and raised in Waukesha, 20 miles west of Milwaukee. Her mother was an alderwoman in the suburb for almost 10 years, and also served as mayor for a term. Her mother’s leadership positions in local government inspired Koster to become involved in the public sector and to encourage other females to strive for similar positions. “It’s in my blood, I think, because I grew up in that environment.”
Koster has lived in Milwaukee for about 20 years, since she began her education at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There, she received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture and a certificate in urban planning.
“About halfway through, I determined I really wanted to focus on planning as opposed to just building design,” Koster said. “I was interested in looking at the full, physical environment.”
Her dream of working in the public sector was fulfilled after a two-year wait. She got an entry-level planning job at a time when women rarely worked in the profession. Now, as planning manager, a senior-level management position, she is on the third management rung from the top of the department leadership ladder.
A Day in the Life
Koster arrives at the office each morning between 7:30 and 8:00. She manages a full-time staff of nine employees and up to four graduate interns. When she is not assigning projects and checking their progress, she’s either in meetings or out in the city working with developers, landowners and architects on various projects.
“A typical day is very untypical because it’s never the same, and I think that’s what’s so exciting about my job,” Koster said.
According to Lori Lutzka, development projects manager in the Department of City Development, “She is very dependable and is a strong contributor [to] getting projects done.” She added, “For Vanessa, serving the client in the most responsive and honest manner is most important.”
However, working with clients can be challenging. Often, projects come with controversy.
“I work with my staff to make sure we are very respectful of people’s opinions. We always listen first, and I think that is very important,” Koster said. “Once we understand their concerns, we try to address them point by point.”
Rana Altenburg, vice president of public affairs at Marquette University, has worked with Koster for a number of years on Marquette-related projects. She believes Koster is successful at managing the problems that arise.
“She has outstanding interpersonal skills that help facilitate collaboration between the city and the development community,” said Altenburg. “Vanessa is sensitive to stakeholder concerns and excels at problem solving. She is motivated to find solutions that advance the city’s goals while meetings the community’s concerns.”
As a single mom, Koster said she’s very lucky to have a great network of family and friends in the area. ”We all help out each other in taking care of the kids,” she said.
Her friend and neighbor, Shannon O’Neill, observed that Koster is very good at “following her instincts and parenting from the heart. That said, she’s no pushover as a parent. She expects her daughter to be respectful and polite with everyone.”
Koster hopes she has instilled a desire to reach for a management career in her 10-year-old daughter, Mady.
“I can’t imagine not being a single mom and having a full-time job,” Koster said. “And I try to instill that in my daughter as well. I want her to succeed and have the same successes I have had in any career field she chooses.”