These 17 women are changing the face of construction

During this Women in Construction Week, we shine a spotlight on 17 female leaders in design, construction, and real estate to spur an important conversation of diversity, inclusion, and empowerment.

March 05, 2020 |
VIATechnik blog

Nearly one year ago, I wrote an article for VIATechnik’s “The Edge” Blog on BD+C entitled, “The construction industry has a problem, and women are going to solve it,” which included a call to action for the industry to “amplify the voice of women” as a key strategy of empowerment. In the midst of Women in Construction Week, I am taking a moment to do just that!

Through the stories of 17 women in design, construction and real estate, we highlight the incredible contributions that a diverse, inclusive, and empowered workforce can have. We’ve compiled each woman’s compelling journey and personal insights into Chapter 1 of an eBook. I urge you to spend the time to read their stories – I promise you will be inspired by the powerful force that diversity plays in design & construction.

FEATURED AEC LEADERS
Carol Ross Barney, FAIA | Founder and Principal, Ross Barney Architects

Roshan Mehdizadeh Corsiglia | Global Governance Executive, Real Estate, Google

Mollie Fadule | Head of Affordable Housing, Katerra

Elissa Flandro | Customer Success Manager, Autodesk

Kirsten Hull | VP Development, EQ Office

Andie Larson | Construction Solutions Manager | Fieldwire

Myesha McClendon | Vice President, Milhouse Engineering and Construction

Alexis McGuffin | VP Business Development and Partnerships, Lendlease

Danielle O'Connell | Senior Manager, Innovation Services, Skanska

Sabrina Odah | Construction Solutions Director, Suffolk

Salla Palos | Director of Transformation Services, Microsoft

Jamie Redmond | Director of Operations, Redmond Construction

Erica Storck | General Manager, Kapture Prefab

Morgan Traynor | Senior Director of Operational Excellence, Ryan Companies

Trina Warren | Senior Project Manager, Devcon Construction

Leshya Wig | Partner, Wig Properties

Thea Williamson | Senior Design Project Manager, Shake Shack

 

Sharing these stories is more important than many may realize. Alexis McGuffin, Vice President, Business Development & Partnerships at Lendlease says, “How often I hear very successful women say they got lucky in their career advancement, as if it were an accident!  “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time” – I don’t buy it; I think it takes hard work and preparation to be able to capitalize on an opportunity when it arises. Let’s take credit for that to encourage the next generation.” By telling our stories and by listening to and sharing each other’s stories, we celebrate and appreciate the contributions of women in construction. We inspire our next wave of leaders. We encourage the next generation (men and women alike) to join an industry that directly impacts the health, safety, and quality of life of the world.

I am honored to be able to share these remarkable leader’s stories, and thankful to BD+C for giving me this platform. Stories of women like Thea Williamson, Senior Design Project Manager at Shake Shack, who turned challenge into success. Williamson was a 17-year-old runaway who didn’t like her circumstances, so she left, afraid of nothing. At one point, she was only able to have one meal a day. She never said no to an opportunity. Williamson reflects, “Some of my greatest moments were welcomed during challenges; such as being promoted to a part time instructor within my union school, becoming a manager for a drafting and fabrication shop in my 20s, and ultimately saying goodbye to my union and entering the corporate world on my 30th birthday. When I look back on my career, I can clearly see how every moment and every experience truly shaped my current reality for the good. But the positivity I allow it to bring to my reality is a choice.”

 

Why is this conversation so important?

As Sabrina Odah, Construction Solutions Director at Suffolk Construction, puts it, “Our industry is experiencing an increase in labor shortage and a flatline in productivity. Global infrastructure investment will double over the next 15 years. Diversity in the workplace increases innovation, creativity, and productivity. Let’s shift the discussion from whether we should to how we can create a more diverse and inclusive workplace across all roles and leadership positions. Not only will this improve the bottom line, but also, it’s the right thing to do.”

We said it before, and we will say it again. The industry has a problem. The industry dynamics which Odah mentions have created a mismatch between supply and demand in construction globally. And we simply cannot close this gap if we continue to alienate half of our potential workforce. Solving this problem is within your control and I compel you to view it as your responsibility. Your action, or inaction, DOES have an impact.

Jamie Redmond, Director of Operations at Redmond Construction has led targeted efforts to increase diversity and inclusion at her firm. “This year was really special because I got to see our new hiring practices pay off,” notes Redmond. “Our Project Team is now 50% female, and we hired our first female Superintendent.” Similarly, Kirsten Hull, Vice President of Development at Equity Office notes that “60% of the project leads on EQ Office’s Willis Tower redevelopment from ownership to architects, project managers, GCs, and engineers, are women.” 

Mollie Fadule, Head of Affordable Housing at Katerra says, “There’s untapped opportunity for women to have voice and help to lead the change underway in the construction industry. The challenges we are working to confront in the construction industry are massive. If we can bring diverse perspectives and knowledge from outside the industry, in addition to new technologies, we can enact change that brings broad benefits for society. I believe women will be instrumental in the transformation of this industry.”

Beyond just a focus on women, people more broadly are at the center of the solution. Salla Palos, Director of Transformation Services at Microsoft says “People must begin advocating for people. Everyone should advocate for others to get a variety of voices heard. How might we be inclusive as an industry?” The industry must amplify the voice of those who offer solutions. If the industry keeps repeating the same process with the same tools, how can it expect a different outcome? 

 

As innovation sweeps across the AEC industry, women are front and center

Lendlease’s Alexis McGuffin in a Virtual Reality safety simulation.

 

As the industry evolves and innovation takes hold, we are seeing women play a leading role in this change. Morgan Traynor, Senior Director of Operational Excellence at Ryan Companies sees this firsthand in her group’s partnership with Ryan’s innovation team. The Operational Excellence team at Ryan takes those “next big ideas” and implements them across Ryan’s national platform. When speaking of the critical components of successful change management, Traynor says “taking the technology or tool or process and being able to communicate expectations, fully train, and then support individuals and teammates along the way are key roles I see women playing in the innovation and technology space.”

Two such leaders in construction innovation are Elissa Flandro, Customer Success Manager at Autodesk and Andie Larson, Construction Solutions Manager at Fieldwire. According to Flandro, “Construction often gets a bad reputation for being resistant to change, but my encounters have always been extremely positive. I think industry professionals are excited to learn and be a part of the change.” Despite the excitement and enthusiasm, this change is not easy. There is a deep level of complexity that the industry is challenged with. As Larson says, “There are a lot of moving parts and pieces in the real estate/ design/ construction industry. Based off a McKinsey study, here is how an average day on site is spent: 30% of a workday is allocated to “direct wrench time”, 40% preparing for tasks, gathering equipment and materials, and transitioning from one area to the next, and 30% idle time. I started my career at a modular construction company, realizing that modular construction has the ability to address this problem.”

And this brings us to a key theme we uncovered with the featured women. Each one is actively molding her career and taking leadership positions to be an unstoppable force for change, not just in the construction industry but in our world at large.

 

Their Impact Ripples Outward

For some, this impact starts from a personal perspective. For example, take Roshan Mehdizadeh Corsiglia, Global Governance Executive, Real Estate at Google. Corsiglia is a first generation American, and San Jose, CA is where her family made their place in the United States. She is currently helping create the new Google HQ and is making sure her daughter sees this project take shape. Corsiglia notes, “For my daughter, that will mean growing up in a city where her family has had a direct impact on the civic life of this wonderfully vibrant and varied community.”

Leshya Wig, Partner at Wig Properties is playing a role in addressing our nation’s issue with affordable housing, an often overlooked yet vital component of social mobility. As Wig describes, “Affordable housing is a massive problem in our communities, and it appears as if it is getting worse, not better.  Amazing companies such as Katerra and McKinstry have been working to address these issues from a constructability standpoint.  We need that important work to continue.  But we also need to tackle this problem with local cities, to ensure that developers are incentivized to build housing so that the housing supply can continue to build, which will help keep prices down.” So, she is doing just that. “I have been advocating for changes to local land use codes, that can be provided at no cost to the local jurisdictions, for areas of the city that have been identified as appropriate for denser development, while also ensuring we respect the boundaries of our single family neighborhoods.”

 

A sustainable first design for the Award-Winning Chicago Riverwalk by Carol Ross Barney. Photo Credit: Ross Barney Architects

 

Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, Founder & Principal of Ross Barney Architects says, “I think there is a single problem that we face and that is climate change. And I believe that we must solve it now. Our current leaders are tragically wrong to think that anything is more important. Every project we do is considered through the lens of sustainability first. If we do not meet these challenges, we don’t have a future.”

Outside of work, these women continue to embody change they want to see in the world. Erica Storck, General Manager at Kapture Prefab LLC says, “I believe we need to expose young girls to the industry and debunk the perception that construction isn’t for them.” It is for this reason that she has partnered with Charlotte, NC based non-profit, Dottie Rose, which introduces girls to STEM. This summer you’ll find Storck “doing a weeklong camp to blend STEM and construction so the girls can see first-hand the potential they have in our industry.”

 

Devcon Construction’s Trina Warren with her team at Habitat for Humanity in Paraguay.

 

Similarly, Trina Warren, Senior Project Manager at Devcon Construction has travelled the world giving freely of her time to leave the places she has visited better than before she was there. “I love to volunteer for good causes, so utilizing my construction background makes Habitat for Humanity a perfect fit and is a chance to get my hands dirty.  I have volunteered for local community builds and have also travelled to Nepal and Paraguay to build homes.  My most recent trip to Paraguay involved hand digging foundations and septic tanks, rock subgrade, concrete work, and lots of masonry work in 105 degree temperatures. But, we had a fun & hard-working international volunteer team and we had a blast building a new home for the family.  The opportunity to meet and help a community is so rewarding.”

 

Mentorship, Sponsorship, and the “Moment of Lift”

While I am a firm believer in seizing opportunities, taking risks to push your limits, and being bold enough, brave enough to be the change you want to see, I also realize that no one can do it alone. EQ Office’s Kirsten Hull is, as she puts it, “a strong believer in the power of connections”. Throughout her career, important inflection points have been influenced by mentors and sponsors. Hull reflects, “In more recent days, it is Lisa Picard, as EQ Office’s CEO, who has inspired me as a mentor and leader, pushing our teams to prioritize curiosity, creativity, and a customer-centric approach. Living these values are synonymous with inclusivity and diversity of thought, perspective, and experience, and where there is both the widest gap -- and greatest opportunity -- in development and construction.”

The people who influence our lives take many forms – family, friends, colleagues, mentors, sponsors, or even “cheerleaders” as Danielle O’Connell, Senior Manager, Innovation Services at Skanska USA so aptly describes it. “Great relationships are so important with both men and women in the office and in the field. I have one ally, or I might even call him a cheerleader, who really stands out - Mike Zeppieri. He is always keeping an ear out for opportunities for me and is truly invested in my growth and development in the company.”

As I interviewed our 17 featured women, I was struck by the gratitude they felt towards those they viewed as mentors and sponsors, and how this in turn fueled their desire to pay it forward. Take Myesha McClendon, Vice President at Millhouse Engineering & Construction, for example. McClendon says, “Design and Construction are male dominated fields, so I’m excited to be able to encourage young women to pursue engineering and to serve as an example of what’s possible.  I have worked to fund the Myesha and Michelle McClendon scholarship fund that provides tuition assistance for women pursuing degrees in engineering.”

When we take a moment to reflect on these women’s stories, we see what Melinda Gates calls “the moment of lift” – how empowering women changes the world. Please join me in taking a moment to celebrate and appreciate these women as well as the women in your own personal circles who impact your families, teams, companies, and communities. And if nothing else, remember that this is a conversation that must continue after Women in Construction Week 2020 comes to a close!

About the Author
Danielle Dy Buncio is the Co-Founder and CEO of VIATechnik. Prior to VIATechnik Danielle managed large-scale building and infrastructure projects in Silicon Valley, Chicago, and Sydney. Danielle also serves on the Board of Directors of Ryan Companies US, a $2B real estate development, construction, and design firm and JF Brennan, a 100-year-old heavy civil and marine contractor. Danielle is a 2018 Building Design + Construction 40 under 40 honoree and a 2019 ENR National Top 20 under 40. She received a BS in Civil Engineering from Stanford and an MBA from Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. Danielle remembers her first job site at age 3 shortly after her parents founded a heavy civil construction company in Chicago. From a young age, Danielle was fortunate to be surrounded by strong female role models in Civil Engineering and Construction including her mother, Leticia Villasenor, and her aunt, Lydia Galvani.

VIATechnik is the global leader in virtual design and construction, with nearly 200 digital experts in nine global offices. We are on a mission to transform the analog world of design and construction into a digital platform, enabling efficient design, industrialized construction, and a digital real estate service model. Through this transformation, we believe we can solve the world’s housing and infrastructure challenges, deliver spaces that nurture life, commerce, and relationships. We are proud that women at VIATechnik comprise over 30% of our team, 3X the national average. VIATechnik is a WBE firm certified by the WBENC.

VIATechnik blog
VIATechnik

VIATechnik is the global leader in virtual design and construction, with 190+ digital experts in eight global offices. We are on a mission to transform the analog world of design and construction into a digital platform, enabling efficient design, industrialized construction, and a digital real estate service model. Through this transformation, we believe we can solve the world’s housing and infrastructure challenges, deliver spaces that nurture life, commerce, and relationships. The Edge is VIATechnik's blog where our team shares our experiences and explores ideas that create real impact on the built world.

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