We were delighted to welcome Liz Wainwright, the esteemed Executive Director of the Merchants Exchange of Portland, to speak at the June installment of Schwabe’s “Women Leaders in Maritime” series.

As humble as she is driven, Liz recounted her long, winding journey to becoming a highly successful woman in the maritime industry—an anomaly back when she started her career. She’s set to retire later this summer and leaves the industry better than she found it, paving the way for women of the future with the inspiring reminder that hard work, persistence, and a clear vision can land you right where you’re meant to be.

Liz Wainwright and Lisa Lowe

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about you? Who is Liz Wainwright?

A: The first thing to know about me is that I’ve always been a “doer” who puts people together and makes things happen. I come from a maritime family with a history in the field, so that helped shape who I am today and the interests I have in this industry.

The men in my family were all ship captains, so I grew up in that world and had a very strong mom, grandma, and great grandma who focused on raising children and running households—a huge effort and skill in its own right. There was a lot of talk about maritime when we got together for holidays and I never thought I’d get a chance to be part of something like that because that’s “not what girls did,” so I feel really fortunate to have gotten involved in maritime.

Q: How did your path lead you to the Merchants Exchange of Portland?

A: A little luck, opportunity, and hard work.

While luck got me into the business to begin with, I tried to take full advantage of every opportunity that came my way. In college, I pursued a career in education but ultimately wanted to get involved in banking, which led me to a job at First National Bank (now Wells Fargo). Lasco Shipping Co., a ship operating and management company based in Portland, was one of my regular clients and one day, they asked if I wanted a job as their administrative assistant (note: it wasn’t a job as a secretary because I couldn’t type at a secretarial level and my typing skills made them shake their heads). I was given great opportunities there right off the bat, earned a promotion fairly quickly, and really sold my skills so that I could get involved in post-fixture work.

I built on these skills and learned the ins and outs of insurance, legal, purchasing, ship agency, and crew logistics. While at Lasco, I spent seven or eight years as a boarding agent and was one of five women boarding agents at the time. I unfortunately got laid off when the company started winding down, but that allowed me to expand my experience as a ship’s agent at Cascade Marine Agencies. When the Executive Director position at the Merchants Exchange of Portland opened up, I applied, and the rest is history; I believe everything happens for a reason.

Q: What’s one of your favorite stories from throughout your career?

A: Golf is something I really love. When I found out Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association (where I was a member) had an annual golf tournament at one of Portland oldest and most prestigious country clubs, I said: “I’m in. I want to play.” Nobody said I couldn’t! When the tournament day arrived, I excitedly went out to the club and walked in the main door to find the men having lunch in a dining room that you could only access through the men’s locker room. The staff gave me a look that implied “what are we going to do with her?” But I went to play golf and didn’t think about the fact I wasn’t a man. That happened for 2 years and on the 3rd year, the luncheon got moved down to the communal dining room. At the time none of it seemed like a big deal, but when you reflect back, you realize how often that kind of thing happened 35 years ago.

Q: Did you find it difficult to get where you are? What hurdles did you need to overcome?

A: Every once in a while, you come across someone that doesn’t consider you for an opportunity because you’re a woman—partly a generational phenomenon—and it’s not clear if you’ll be taken seriously. It tends to be subtle gestures, rather than people saying “you absolutely can’t do this because you’re a woman.”

When I was first in college, I couldn’t go to a maritime academy because it wasn’t an option and I would’ve had to go back and get a second degree if I wanted to attend one; I chose to work instead. I was either really lucky or oblivious and focused so intently on what I thought I could do that I just did it. I believe you are where you are because you had a vision, so keep it up.

Q: When you look back, what are you most proud of? What are your biggest successes?

A: Mentoring women that I work with and giving them opportunities for career development. I love being able to say, “yes, you can do this too if you want to.” I’ve always wanted to provide my team with career opportunities and not be afraid to put them in a position where they could be promoted or may want to go off on their own to start something new.

During my time at Lasco, I joined the Women’s Shipping Club and was one of the founding members of the Women’s Shipping Club Scholarship Fund. The need was really prominent from the ‘50s through the ‘80s when women couldn’t belong to maritime clubs or form any other women-focused clubs. Being part of Women’s Shipping Club, getting the scholarship off the ground, and having the opportunity to form a successor scholarship fund under the Merchants Exchange is what I’m most proud of.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

A: Believe in yourself. If it’s something that’s truly attainable, put your head down and go for it.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m leaving the Merchants Exchange in a really good spot; I was given a great foundation and I’m honored to be passing on an organization with a great foundation that is well respected in our maritime community.

My husband and I plan to build a house in Central Oregon and have dinner a lot earlier than we normally do. We plan to travel internationally and cross off some bucket list destinations: the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and Pompeii. I can’t wait to relax and read books again.

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