The Research Triangle Park

Leading North Carolina: Barbara Mulkey

By May 17, 2016
Leading North Carolina highlights members of the Research Triangle Foundation’s Board of Directors. Writer Bridgette A. Lacy provides an insider’s look at the people helping to guide the future of The Research Triangle Park – and North Carolina. Each member of our board has a unique background that effects their perspective on how we should redevelop RTP. We are thankful for their time, their wisdom and their willingness to continue working with our team on this journey.

Barbara H. Mulkey is a connector. She is the founder and retired chairman of the board of Mulkey Engineers & Consultants, a mid-sized, multi-discipline civil and environmental engineering firm that enables clients to transform everyday challenges into everyday achievements.

“I was a bridge engineer,” Barbara says. “Now I am a bridge in another way. I like to use my imagination to connect people that can help one another… I like to connect groups and efforts that can benefit one another.”

The Duplin County native graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in civil engineering in 1977 and a master’s in structural engineering in 1984 from North Carolina State University.

While an undergrad, she interned at the N. C. Department of Transportation (DOT), where she met her future husband, Jim. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she returned to work there. Barbara entered the training program and ended up in the bridge design group, which was structural engineering.

Then Barbara worked for a few years in the Park for J.E. Sirrine, a large engineering consulting company. In the 1980s, the Park was very different, she recalls. Workers were encouraged to eat on site. There were very few amenities such as dry cleaners, urgent care centers or banks. “We sometimes ate at Governor’s Inn on special occasions.”

Deciding to specialize in structural engineering, she returned to NC State for her master’s. She had to juggle being a wife, student and mother.   “At that time I was married and had a house payment. I was awarded a full fellowship, which was incredible, and there was even money for me to live on,” she recalls. “Three days after I accepted the fellowship, I found out I was pregnant. I started school in January; I had our son in July, and then went back to school. I got my professional engineer’s licensing exam and finished graduate school pregnant and then as a mother.”

In 1993, Barbara founded Mulkey Engineers & Consultants, Inc., an engineering consulting firm specializing in engineering and related services for both the public and private sectors. The Cary-based firm that started at her kitchen table made the list of Top 500 Engineering Companies nationally featured in the Engineering News Record magazine.

Barbara is heralded as one of the most respected transportation experts in the state, as evidenced by her induction into the N. C. Transportation Hall of Fame. She brings that keen knowledge of how to move people efficiently to the RTF board as the Park becomes a town center, drawing more motorists, workers and tenants.

She prescribes “a multi-modal solution” for the Park. Barbara suggests, for example, light rail along with bicycles and buses. “Once people get to the Park, what do they do? The Park is huge… The challenge with RTP is once people get there, getting them distributed to where they need to go out there.

“I also think there are solutions that don’t involve transportation infrastructure likes businesses offering flex schedules, people working at home, taking people off the highway during rush hour.”

Barbara plans to also bring her personal and professional mission of advancing educational and job prospects for more Triangle residents. She’s interested in helping the RTF work closer with community colleges to produce more workers to supplyeverybody needs” to Park workers and eventually residents not just specialized research and development positions. Jobs like firemen, plumbers, teachers, and electricians.

She credits Bob Geolas’ vision for partnering with community colleges to help create a more diverse workforce and workers with various vital skill sets.

Dr. Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff, vice provost for Outreach and Engagement at North Carolina State University and executive director of the NC State Industrial Extension Service, describes her college friend as “insightful” and “creative” especially when it comes to transit.

“She sees transportation as a driver of economic development,” says Ms. Ratcliff.  She explains that Barbara understands how small train systems can create a new cluster of economic prosperity, reinventing neighborhoods and new clusters of commerce and work spaces.

“Barbara takes her experiences and rotates them a little bit and transforms them in a much more brilliant way,” says Ms. Ratcliff.

Barbara’s expertise and fresh approach will help the Park adapt to the needs of the next generation of workers and future Park residents.

“I think we are going to see smaller, entrepreneurial companies there…more fast-moving small businesses, younger people, especially those working at technology start-ups, Barbara says. “I don’t pretend to know that world. I have aged out of it. It’s a different world but one that we need to be prepared to provide services for.”

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