Gabriella Caldwell-Miller of the Hanover County Community Services Board.
Gabriella Caldwell-Miller of the Hanover County Community Services Board. Photo courtesy of Diane Deffenbaugh/Virginia Tech.

Bonnie Svrcek has plenty of experience when it comes to being the only woman in the room — more than 40 years of experience. 

She served as the first female assistant city manager for Blacksburg throughout the 1990s, then became Lynchburg’s first female city manager, a job she held for 21 years before retiring in 2020.

Bonnie Svreck. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.
Bonnie Svrcek. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Svrcek decided to dedicate her retirement to filling the void she’d felt throughout her career in local government by creating a network of education and support among women in chief administrative roles throughout Virginia. 

But even she needed a little nudge to get started. It came from Jerri Wilson, vice president of the Virginia chapter of Women Leading Government, an initiative that has chapters across the country. Wilson had been urging Svrcek to start something along those lines for years, and eventually Wilson assembled an email list of women in governmental positions throughout the commonwealth in 2018. She persuaded Svrcek to create a curriculum and organize an institute that would connect these women as well as build their leadership skills.

In March 2022, the Virginia chapter of Women Leading Government, in partnership with the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, launched the first cohort of the Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute, led by Svrcek.

The second cohort gathered at the Hotel Roanoke on Oct. 20. The 25 women came from across the state and ranged from an administrative assistant in Campbell County to the assistant finance director for the city of Suffolk to the chief financial officer of Prince William County. This second class of the institute attended a half-day event packed with seminars about building confidence and debriefs about the program’s last eight months, culminating with a luncheon and graduation.   

“I’ve learned that being a woman is not a deficit, but a superpower,” said Kristy Shifflett, chief operating officer for Albemarle County and a member of the cohort. “We need to connect into what makes us different and special, and bring that to the table.”

Angela O'Brien. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.
Angela O’Brien. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Roanoke’s new assistant city manager, Angela O’Brien, is another member of the second cohort honored at last week’s ceremony. 

“It has definitely advanced my leadership abilities,” said O’Brien, who has worked in Roanoke city’s government since 2000. “And more importantly, I think it has given me the skills and the tool sets to be able to help, mentor and foster other women in the program to help them achieve additional goals, especially in leadership roles in local government.”

LeAnna Surratt, town treasurer and assistant town manager of Hillsville
LeAnna Surratt, town treasurer and assistant town manager of Hillsville. Photo courtesy of Diane Deffenbaugh/Virginia Tech.

A key talking point throughout the day was a statistic released by the Local Government Diversity Dashboard in April 2022: Virginia falls in the bottom three states — only beating Utah and Rhode Island — for women appointed to top local government management positions, with only 17% of these roles filled by women in the commonwealth. Programs like the institute only exist in four other states: Washington, Oregon, Michigan and Texas.   

“We need more women in local government, because the strength of mixed-gender leadership will build better communities,” said Svrcek. 

Stephanie Davis, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Public Administration and Policy, talked to the group about four core public service values: accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, social equity and diversity, and, finally, justice. She ended her remarks by expressing her optimism in the next generation of female leaders that she is teaching in her introduction to city management courses at Virginia Tech, while also paying her respects to the women who blazed the trail ahead of them — including her mother, who worked in the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget for 35 years. 

“She worked in a time where there was no such thing as work-family balance, that it wasn’t the given that women had every opportunity to be in positions of leadership,” said Davis. “She worked very hard and she sacrificed a lot for the good or for the bad. She had very difficult choices. The women who came before us, some of them are sitting in this room today, have made sacrifices that we will never know. So it’s our responsibility and duty as the next generation to be the best we can be and make our organizations better.”  

Svrcek followed Davis to discuss the task force she initiated in 2011 during her tenure as president of the International City/County Management Association — she was only the second female president of the organization in 99 years — which examined the role of women in local government.

“One of the recommendations was certainly to create robust chapters in states around the country to help women gain the confidence skills and leadership skills to be the leaders in chief administrative officer slots in the Commonwealth,” Svrcek said. 

The Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute is fulfilling this recommendation, according to its graduates. In a gesture of support for the institute’s mission, the members of the second cohort surprised Svrcek with a check of $1,070 to go toward sponsoring the next cohort.

The journey started back in January for the cohort members, when more than 60 applicants submitted cover letters and resumes for review by Svrcek. 

“Applicants were chosen on the strength of their cover letter and the emphasis placed on why you want to participate and how will you give back to other women in local government once you complete the Institute,” Svrcek said. “In addition, we want each cohort to be representative of the geography of the commonwealth.”

Starting in March, the group met for eight sessions, some virtual and some in-person, held at locations across the state. The sessions covered topics including supervisory skills, budgeting and finance, council-manager relations, ethical decision-making, even a Myers-Briggs personality type assessment. 

“I loved meeting women from all over the state and different roles and different expertise,” said Shifflett, who has worked in local government for 12 years. “And also love learning from different people who perform the role of deputy county executives, or are experts in certain professional development arenas. It was a wonderful experience.”

Members of the cohort are scheduling events and finding ways to stay connected despite being scattered across the state. 

“There’s an energy for the participants who’ve gone through both cohorts to stay connected, to build and grow their own professional experiences, whether they do it on their own, or they do it through future programs that we’re involved with,” said Scott Weimer, executive director of the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center. “I think there’s a real energy with this program that we’re excited to be part of and whatever we can do to continue to build that network. That’s why I remain excited to be involved.”

Emily Hemphill is a freelance journalist from Elliston. She received a bachelor's degree in political...