The CEO of the Year for 2020 in the small business category is the president of EMH&T.

As a kid, Sandy Doyle-Ahern cared about the natural community around her. “I grew up playing in the woods and always enjoyed animals and nature,” she says. That’s what set her on her path to environmental science.

After earning a biology degree from the University of Delaware, Doyle-Ahern set out toward a career in environmental compliance. Thanks to multiple internships with a large Philadelphia-area consulting firm, though, she solidified her path to consulting.

She earned a master’s degree in environmental science from Miami University, a school she chose for its varied curriculum. “It exposed me to the broad interdisciplinary nature of what I could do with that background,” she says. “I enjoy problem solving. My personality is not meant for a lab.”

A graduate school internship brought her to Columbus, and in 1997, she landed a role at EMH&T, initially to get the firm’s environmental division off the ground, which she did for about eight years. She never left—she became the firm’s first woman president in 2012.

Read about all of our CEO of the Year 2020 award winners.

Though “climbing the ladder” was never her goal, she gradually moved up the ranks as the only female manager for dozens of male engineers and surveyors. “They were supportive of what I was doing, so I just felt very comfortable in that environment,” she says. “That culture is still there.”

Today, she says aside from its people, what stands out about EMH&T is its client diversity—something she worked hard to achieve even before but certainly following the Great Recession. “Many firms, by nature, tend to do most of their work in the public sector or private. We are about 50-50,” she says.

The firm provides services for schools, the hospitality and health care industries, towns and cities, and state and federal agencies, including the military. “It’s our biggest strength because we have a strong understanding about both sectors,” she says.

But projects would be nothing without people. “Projects are the outcome of the relationships people have at the firm,” she says. “Without really good people who trust each other, the projects don’t happen.”

Fostering that trusting, collaborative environment is why Doyle-Ahern invests in company culture, which has been a hurdle during the Covid-19 pandemic as many staff went home only to return recently in waves. “We have about 80 [engineers] still in the field,” she says. “They don’t get to go home. I’m very sensitive to that.”

Though 2020 has presented challenges, Doyle-Ahern doesn’t give the pandemic too much power over the company’s path. “I have learned so much from my colleagues, and I’ve gotten to work on incredible projects with incredible clients,” she says. “I know that’ll be back. This period is not going to define the future, it’s just something we have to get through.”

Not only does she invest in her own people, Doyle-Ahern uplifts her community. “I’m at the point of my career where I love my job and wouldn’t change it, but my personal core is about the community and creating opportunity for other people.”

As board chair of YWCA Columbus, she shares a close relationship with CEO Christie Angel, another 2020 CEO of the Year honoree. “We talk almost daily,” Doyle-Ahern says. “She is an unbelievable leader for the YWCA.”

Other organizations she works with include the Columbus Partnership and the Franklin County Blueprint for Reducing Poverty, among many others.

Doyle-Ahern is adamant about pushing for positive housing policy changes in the region. “I am continuing to do the best I can with being a voice and an advocate and ally for people who need that support,” she says. “It’s not that they need me; they need more voices speaking up for policy change.”

Over the years, she says, she and her husband have had opportunities to move away from Columbus. “We stayed because we really do love it here,” she says. “We have a lot of things we need to work on, like social justice and creating opportunities for people. There’s work to do.”

Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.