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Q&A with Melissa Danko, 2015 Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year

By Brianna Liestman

Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, was named the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year for 2015 at the awards breakfast during the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, which took play on Nov. 15-18.

Danko has led the association for the past 15 years after working in the hotel industry for 10 years. Her experiences with boating included fishing with her father as a child and boating with her husband.

“When I think back about that, I realize that I was meant to be here. I was meant to do this job. I was meant for this work. It has been an incredible adventure,” Danko said in her acceptance speech at the breakfast.

Danko’s speech focused on deep appreciation for the association’s board of directors, members and staff, to whom she credits the opportunity to win the award. She also highlighted how a balance between her work and family life contributed to her success.

“I strongly believe that flexibility and freedom in the workplace are so important and something that every employer should strive to provide to their employees,” said Danko. “I work harder because of it, I work stronger and smarter, and I’m happier because of it.”

We sat down with Danko to discuss her accomplishments and garner her perspective on the industry.

Are there any standout achievements in your career as executive director?

“The one thing that stands out in my mind is perhaps a lot of the work my team and I did for Hurricane Sandy recovery. I think it was probably one of the most challenging time periods here, right after the storm and trying to navigate through what we had to do as a trade association to help our members. Some of them lost everything and were just so devastated from the storm. I’m proud to say we did a lot of work to help them get through that tough period. We worked really hard to make sure some of these businesses were able to receive grants and funding, and it was definitely hard and challenging. Sandy still is here all around us three years [later] but I’m definitely proud of what we were able to do to help our members.”

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you do on the youth committee of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council?

“We talk a lot about our youth and trying to make sure that we don’t lose them. I think that’s definitely a struggle of our industry and something that I am incredibly passionate about: making sure that our younger generation realizes what’s out there for them and getting them engaged and out on the water so they can grow up loving this industry. … We created a database of boating programs. That was a start to be able to put that information out there for people seeking those programs and things that they can do for their children [and] with their children. Communication and getting the word out there is certainly a challenging piece and also even engaging some of those people that offer these programs to be able to do more. There’s obviously limited resources in place that prevent these programs from being more [accessible], so there’s certainly work to be done in that, but that was one of the things we focused on.”

What do you think the industry can do to help guide young people toward a career in the marine industry?

“We have to certainly have opportunities and ways to get them out onto the water … and identifying youth programs that can work toward getting kids out on the water and finding ways to support them financially. … I think looking to making sure that we’re engaging the children, giving the support and resources for their families or even opening the door for people who maybe don’t have a boat, and doing that through programs to get other children out on the water.”

What do you think the marine industry can do to attract more women as an employment option?

“I would definitely start by saying I certainly see more women professionals in our industry, so I think that’s a great thing to be able to see. … The industry can certainly continue by hiring more women, engaging them and I think an incredibly important piece of this is ensuring that workplace is equitable and fair for everyone. I also feel really strongly about ensuring that organizations, both in our industry and other industries, create policies and support flexibility not just for working women but working families as a whole. … Advancement of technology has really made it so much easier to do that, so it would be nice to see more of a focus on productivity and results by offering flexibility and freedom. I am a strong believer that it creates a happier work environment and I think our industry can certainly look to embrace that and lead the way.”

What advice do you have for young women starting their career in the marine industry?

“Always be professional, confident and strong, no matter what challenges or obstacles they may face. Don’t ever be afraid to speak up. Don’t ever let your gender or anyone stand in your way. I would tell them to always treat other men and women as equals. I work hard as a person; I don’t put myself out there as a woman, I just work hard to do my job as a person. I would say it’s important to always keep that in mind when you’re working: to be fair to everyone. And I would say, if you are a young person and you certainly felt challenged or needed some confidence, to seek out another strong woman – someone who can help you or provide some guidance and advice. It’s always wonderful to be able to talk to people who can navigate these challenges and overcome them.”

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