2023 40 Under 40: Lesley Gordon

Aug. 22, 2023
Lesley Gordon, Chief Public Affairs Officer, IndyGo

One word to describe yourself: Energetic

Alma Mater: Indiana University

Fast fact about yourself: I love sharks.

What’s your best experience on transit and what made it memorable?: I’ve always had really good experiences on transit. Even the ones that aren’t good are technically “good” because it means there’s an opportunity to fix what’s wrong, but, ultimately, my favorite times are the ones with my kids and husband. The first time we rode the Red Line was particularly memorable. We walked to the bus rapid transit station, and when the bus arrived, it was packed with passengers. I really enjoyed showing my son how to ride the bus and explaining how important the transportation service is and what bus drivers do.

For Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation (IndyGo) Chief Public Affairs Officer Lesley Gordon, improving public transportation to better serve Indianapolis residents is much more than a career goal. It’s a passion-filled hobby and dedicated lifestyle for a self-proclaimed transit enthusiast, as she commits daily to executing strategic outreach and essential communications for current and future public transit riders.

At IndyGo, Gordon leads all communications and engagement efforts, including establishing strategic partnerships that will advance the agency within the community. Colleagues say this is where Gordon really shines, noting her creativity and innovation, taking IndyGo beyond the bus with the establishment of IndyGo Cares.

The first piece of IndyGo Cares is Wellness in Transit. In partnership with Gennesaret Free Clinics, a local nonprofit healthcare provider, IndyGo provides free healthcare services to riders and any member of the public through a mobile health unit parked at IndyGo’s downtown transit center weekly, allowing those who don’t have insurance, or even a valid ID, to receive a wide range of valuable medical services from testing and diagnosis to treatment and medications all in one stop. New this year, under Gordon’s leadership and direction of Special Programs Manager Jordan Patterson, IndyGo has added two new partners who address sexual health, mental health and homelessness. They also set up at the transit center, bringing rapid testing, assessment teams and treatment resources directly to IndyGo riders.

Food in Transit is another program under the IndyGo Cares umbrella. This is a partnership with the city and a local, urban farm to provide fresh produce at little or no cost to shoppers. This is accomplished through a fresh farmstand that is set up at our downtown transit center weekly, allowing riders and other members of the public to easily access healthy food options. New this year, Gordon was instrumental in securing another city partner who provides recipes, ingredients and cooking demonstrations free of charge, giving customers everything they need to cook a healthy meal for themselves and their families.

Throughout her time as chief public affairs officer, Gordon has also shifted IndyGo’s communications efforts and accomplishments into high gear, enthusiastically and creatively sharing IndyGo’s successes and increasing transit awareness, which was particularly important when it came to promoting the agency’s efforts as one of the first transit agencies in the nation to successfully launch bus rapid transit (BRT). As a result, IndyGo has garnered national attention over the past year from entities like The Redford Center, a national nonprofit agency that focuses on amplifying environmental stories. The Redford Center produced a short documentary featuring the BRT route, the Red Line, which launched in 2019.

In her free time, Gordon continues her mission of expanding public transportation’s reach for Indianapolis residents. She currently serves on seven boards of directors for organizations, ensuring each of them maintains inclusive practices and keeps transit accessibility at the forefront of their initiatives. On one of those boards, for Downtown Indy, Gordon continues her encouragement of transit-focused initiatives showcasing the city’s treasures. She is also the co-lead for the transportation committee for the 2024 NBA All-Star Game that is taking place in February 2024 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Gordon has actively pursued IndyGo’s inclusive mission, as she’s ushered in two themed bus wraps in 2022: An LGBTQ+ pride bus and a Veterans bus. These buses drive across Indianapolis, enforcing the message that all are welcome aboard IndyGo.

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

I was born and raised in Indy, and I’ve always been enthusiastic about my city and seeing it portrayed in a positive light. I’ve also seen it change greatly over the years.

When IndyGo introduced its first BRT route, the Red Line, in 2019, I was very excited about the benefits it would bring to Indy’s neighborhoods. I had just bought a home along the future Purple Line, so I decided to attend a public meeting to learn more. Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t go well. The information was poorly received by the audience given the data was shared in a way that made community members think the changes would negatively affect them. Presenters breezed over any potential challenges residents could face and did not prepare for audience questions. I remember leaving, thinking it didn’t have to go that way.

After this experience, I called friends of mine that worked for IndyGo and shared my feedback from the public outreach I had completed through my career. I explained the necessity and benefits of having a true connection to the neighborhoods the agency was involved with and how the meetings could improve in the future.

Not too long after that, the agency called me, offering me a position because the person who was leading outreach and communications was leaving. The timing worked out perfectly because I was ready to transition from my job at the time.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It’s ironic, but the thing I love most is also the thing I enjoy the least about my job at times: People management. I enjoy being a manager and pouring into those around me, mentoring them and sparking development and connection. The coolest part is seeing your efforts come to fruition as you watch others use the information you shared in their own ways to progress and solve problems. The hardest part is when it’s not pretty. Giving people bad news or making tough decisions, especially when it impacts your team members, is no small task. But, at the end of the day, people management can be ridiculously rewarding.

I also want to take a moment to thank my boss, IndyGo President and CEO Inez Evans, for allowing me the opportunity to do the work that I love. It’s an honor to come alongside her and collaborate with a strong, Black, female leader such as her.  

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

You cannot control what people do, only how you prepare and respond. The hardest part about communications is making sure your message resonates with your audience. Audiences are ever evolving and learning how to tailor your message for several different topics can be a challenge. Finding ways to make sure all your internal and external stakeholders are in alignment is crucial for successful communications.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

My proudest accomplishment is definitely the eGen Flex Bus reveal IndyGo hosted in June 2022. We called it the Release the Flex bus reveal. I truly dreamed up the celebration. I was told repeatedly that it could never happen and then it came to life! It was also a great example of our team rallying and working together to produce the impossible. It was an all-hands-on deck mission, and everyone helped execute the plan.

Also, I loved seeing my city, and our new bus, shown in a beautiful light on a national platform. “Sexy buses” is my motto, and this was the epitome of a sexy bus! The event was complete with smoke, music and a light show at night. It was truly a vision executed.

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?

First off: Follow your gut. It’s always right.

Secondly: Don't concern yourself so much with balance. We strive for perfect balance, but it’s okay if it doesn’t exist. It’s extremely difficult to achieve, but if we stive to be intentional, and if we’re present in what we’re doing at the moment, we’ll feel good about where we’re going and less guilty about what we’re not able to do in those moments. Trying to balance everything is not always plausible.   

About the Author

Brandon Lewis | Associate Editor

Brandon Lewis is a recent graduate of Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lewis is a former freelance editorial assistant at Vehicle Service Pros.com in Endeavor Business Media’s Vehicle Repair Group. Lewis brings his knowledge of web managing, copyediting and SEO practices to Mass Transit Magazine as an associate editor.