Kathy Konst has accepted many leadership roles in her professional career, and has overcome several hurdles to reach her present post as Commissioner of Environment and Planning for Erie County, learning much about how a woman can succeed in what was traditionally male-dominated roles.
A Chicago native, Konst started her career as a third-grade teacher in Arizona. In 1992, she came to Lancaster, where she started her own business called Marketing Concepts, in addition to teaching business and computer education classes at Bryant and Stratton and Medaille Colleges. In 1998, she started working for the Lancaster Area Chamber of Commerce, eventually rising to the role of director, which enabled her to work with several not-for-profit organizations and give her community a voice. That accomplishment was followed by a failed run for a legislative seat in 1999.
Konst said her inspiration to enter politics came from her daughter, who had developed her own political aspirations.
“She said, ‘Mom, you should run for office - it will be great for my career,’” laughed Konst. “We teach our children not to be afraid of the things that we were fearful of; it took me 44 years to get to that point, and she, at the age of 16 when I first ran, was saying, “Go ahead, mom.’”
Konst also contributes her inspiration to her husband, who encouraged her and thought she would be great for a political role. Konst was first elected to the Democratic District Five Erie County legislature in 2005, in an upset victory against incumbent Denise Marshall.
“I never thought I would ever do anything like that in my life. I didn’t have a political bone in my body. The reason why I decided to run for the office was because I was harassed by people into running,” laughed Konst. “The people who asked me to run, recognized that I was the director of the chamber of commerce - and they thought that the fact that I was involved in the community, dealing with businesses and community organizations, that I would be a good fit for the legislature. In 2005, with the meltdown in Erie County government, people were looking for a change.”
In 2008, Konst decided to run in the state senate race, defeating Tim Pawarski in the Democratic primary by margins greater than three to one. She went onto face the incumbent, New York State Senator Dale Volker, representing the 59th Senate District, in the general election on Nov. 4, losing by a 56 to 44 margin. Recently, Konst resigned from both her legislative seat and her position as the director of the Lancaster Area Chamber of Commerce in August 2009, and has taken the position as the Commissioner of Environment and Planning for Erie County. Konst was offered the position by the Erie County Executive Chris Collins-(R).
“[The appointment] was unexpected and out of the blue. They came after me for the same reasons I mentioned before, I had the legislature experience, I had the business experience, I work with the community, and they thought it was a good fit,” said Konst. “I also knew a lot of the people who I now interact with on a daily basis. So there wouldn’t be as big as a learning curve to step into the role. The reason why I decided to do it was just understanding how much more of an actual impact that I could have working on projects dealing with economic development, working with community organizations, being able to actually implement programs more so than I was able to on the legislature. So, I was really looking at being able to have a much greater impact and that to me was a really enticing. I am an action person, and politics is more about reaction.”
As a woman, Konst said being in her position now and reflecting upon her past political career that things have changed as far as how women are viewed and attitudes about woman in politics.
“I think things started to change and push in the 60s and 70s. You’ve got a whole generation of adults now, boys in particular, who were raised with an expectation of equity, and women were never considered to be discriminated against,” said Konst. “I know in my experience from the time I was in high school and college, and then my working career, it was more difficult. Woman weren’t given the same kinds of promotions, and there were not as many women in the business environment. There still may be places where that happens. I think in this area, even in terms of politics, you still see so many more men in elected positions than women, but I think now women are perceived as maybe being more rational, more thoughtful, and caring, and maybe there will be a little more of a turn.”
One of the hurdles Konst has overcome in her career is being taken seriously. She wanted to be taken seriously as soon as she graduated from college. She remarked that she has learned that it now comes with maturity, and comes with experience, and one has to prove oneself. At present, Konst feels that her current accomplishments have leveled the playing field to a point where she doesn’t feel like she is being treated any differently as a woman than if she were a man. Another struggle she faced was those who abused and exploited the system and went after “brownie points.” Konst commented that she never went that route, but it is even harder because than you’re really working at trying to prove yourself every step of the way, while other people may be taking shortcuts through the system.
Konst added that she also worked for many not-for-profit organizations most of her life, and while they were rewarding, those jobs paid very little.
“If I would have taken another direction and maybe would have created something different for myself things would have been different, but I made a choice to follow my heart, as opposed to my pocketbook,” laughed Konst.
For those women who have an interest in pursuing a political career, Konst offered some advice and believes women need to look at what is available to them, and question whether their true goals are political, or if they simply want to do something positive for the community. The starting point should be where someone thinks they can be the most helpful, and use their talents in those roles. Konst added that finding someone that they admire in government and reaching out to them is a good way to understand and learn what politics is all about. Trying to get involved and having a connection to a political party and volunteering to help out with a campaign is very effective to see how things are operated. Being involved in the political world or just in everyday occurrences can raise stress levels, and Konst has a way of looking at things to help her not to become so overwhelmed.
“Depending on what the stress is, it is just really trying to break down the issue so it doesn’t become overwhelming,” commented Konst.” The other thing is, if you have the opportunity and ability, to delegate - you need to do it. They always say women are good at multitasking, but studies now have shown that multitasking really makes you less efficient, less productive, and it is not what it is cracked up to be. Can we do it? Yes, can we do it pretty well; but I would much rather be able to break down all that stuff into workable tasks and focus my energies in doing a good job, one job at a time. We might be balancing some balls, but you don’t have to do them all at the same time.”