Women in Public Affairs to Know: Nicole Barranco

June 15, 2020

Pardon Our Dust

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Nicole Barranco is the Senior Director of State Government Relations for Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team.

Question: Given that we are in the middle of a worldwide crisis dealing with COVID-19, can you talk about your professional experience in crisis environments and the biggest lessons you’ve learned from those experiences?

Nicole Barranco: I’ve had the good fortune of having had experience with several significant crises in my career. I say this is “good fortune” because it really prepares you for a crisis when another one hits – and there will always be a crisis.  My first job in DC was with Trans World Airlines (TWA).  The owner of TWA was referred to as a “corporate raider”, and people feared that he bought TWA just to sell off its most valuable routes. That was a great concern to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress, and of course to the employees as well. In one instance of a route sale, our small Washington office called for “all hands on deck.” Every day we were in communication with the White House, the Secretary of Transportation, the Secretary of Labor and all of the labor unions conducting urgent negotiations to protect the workers of TWA.

Fast forward to my time at Toyota when there were claims of “unintended acceleration” in certain vehicles.  In an unprecedented move, the Secretary of Transportation went on TV and told people to stop driving their Toyotas! It was an absolutely crazy time in our office and we had to regroup quickly. We got a plan together, put together working groups and sent messages to Congress. We discovered the facts and put a plan in place in no time. It was a tremendous experience in getting the messages out and getting employees to tell their stories. Getting the real story out was part of the enormous challenge. 

 Nicole representing Volkswagen at Sonoma Raceway.

Nicole representing Volkswagen at Sonoma Raceway.

Fast forward again to my time at Volkswagen when issues arose regarding diesel emission claims – which was a major hurdle for the company to address, resolve and ultimately overcome. What I learned from past experiences was not only do we have to react quickly, but I also had to be able to anticipate the next steps. It’s critical to have certain pieces already in place because you do not have time to reconstruct the foundation. 

Surviving a crisis situation is a great learning experience and is actually viewed as a strength in your professional portfolio to show that you have endured a crisis, survived and reemerged in decent shape. Given all that is going on in the US currently with COVID-19 and with racial inequality, corporate America has a tremendous opportunity at its feet.  That opportunity is to reshape and refocus practices of the past and to implement groundbreaking and innovative strategies that will successfully reshape the way business is conducted modern America.  

 Nicole, Gov. McAuliffe, Sen. Warner, and the Hon. Karen Jackson during a Virginia Unmanned Systems Commission meeting. Nicole served as co-chair of the Commission.

Nicole, Gov. McAuliffe, Sen. Warner, and the Hon. Karen Jackson during a Virginia Unmanned Systems Commission meeting. Nicole served as co-chair of the Commission. 

Q: Can you talk about mobility in today’s world and whether the advancement of autonomous vehicles will be spurred in a post COVID-19 world?

Nicole: I think we’re going to see a change in mobility as a result of COVID-19, as well as a shift in the workforce. Post-COVID, I could see a reduction in public transit. I think we’ll see an increase in personal vehicle use and I could see a couple of solutions; some of those are shared mobility, ride-share, and that could be autonomous vehicles ultimately. There are already some models in Europe with autonomous shared vans. If more people are using their personal vehicles, there are many advantages to increasing the automated function for better traffic flow and for vehicle safety.  

Q: Your experience has spanned both private industry as well as public service.  How have each of these experiences influenced the other?

 Nicole Barranco joins Virginia Business magazine for a discussion on the economic environment in the commonwealth.

Nicole Barranco joins Virginia Business magazine for a discussion on the economic environment in the commonwealth.

Nicole: My first endeavor on the public side was during an internship in college at the U.S. Congress. It was a terrific experience that set the stage for a career in government affairs. No matter where your interests lie, every issue will appear in Congress. This experience really illustrated to me how a Congressional office works and the do’s and don’t’s of lobbying to some extent.

During law school I worked with the Department of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, focusing on international trade, WTO disputes and anti-dumping and countervailing duties. These are very complex matters in the trade space.  Out of curiosity, I thought to put myself in that space so I could have a better understanding of it from the government side. They were great experiences, and strategically it provides special insight into an office that  you possibly end up working with down the road.

Q: What’s your advice for someone who wants a career in government relations, and more specifically, wants to represent the auto industry?

Nicole: Relationships are important. You never know where someone will end up or what they’ll end up doing and it’s really interesting how that all works out in retrospect. I like to say that “I collect people” and I do.

It’s the greatest advice you can give someone is to meet people, stay in touch, and to recognize that everyone who crosses your path could prove helpful or could help connect you, or maybe you just end up knowing a person who ends up being a good friend.

Ask for informational interviews. Talk to your friends, find out who you know in the industry, make contacts and tell them you’re interested and why. Your attitude is tremendously important; having a can-do attitude and showing enthusiasm for the subject matter is a compliment to the person with whom you’re speaking and shows your interest and energy for the subject matter. No one expects you to be an expert, but they will notice your interest and that you have taken the time to educate yourself on the issues.

 Nicole Barranco speaking at The Future of Transportation seminar.

Nicole Barranco speaking at The Future of Transportation seminar.

Q: One of the things I most admire about you is your recognition of others.  Regardless of whether the individual is a parking attendant or a Governor, you have a way of interacting with people that is warm and inclusive.  I’ve always been curious about this trait and wondered if you might be willing to comment on how you learned this behavior and what success it brings to your life.

Nicole: That’s a tremendous compliment and I really appreciate you saying that. It’s not deliberate, I think it’s just who I am. It’s possibly a Southern trait or my small-town upbringing — where everyone knows everyone and you wouldn’t dare cross someone’s path without speaking. I think treating people with respect will carry you far.

When I think about government affairs, I think that some people try to learn a trick, and my trick is just being genuine. All you have is your word and your persona. If you are not honest and truthful then you’re not going to develop long-term working relationships. Starting from that premise, it just flows naturally to be honest, truthful and genuine to everyone in your path.

I learned from my parents to love what you do because you spend an awful lot of time doing it. If you love what you do then you’re going to be happy, you’ll most likely develop some expertise and you will have fun with your profession.