Growing up with an interest in architecture, I never would have guessed I would find my passion in construction, but I did just that—by taking chances, betting on myself, and viewing every prospect as an opportunity to grow. I am currently the virtual design and construction director for JE Dunn Construction’s Healthcare division, but the path I took to get here is far from traditional. It opened my eyes to not only the construction world, but also how many paths exist within it. This is the story of how I found my path to success as a woman in the construction industry.
My interest in the AEC industry started in high school in a wood shop class, but it was the architectural aspect of it that fascinated me the most. Throughout the course of all four years in high school, my high school counselor told me I’d never make it through an architecture program, so from day one, I was not encouraged to get into the industry. After that advice, I did what any person in my shoes would do—I applied at the Texas Tech University College of Architecture and was accepted into the Bachelors of Science program.
I completed the program, but there was one problem; the program was not accredited, which meant I would then have to go to graduate school. So, grad school it was. It took me a few tries to get in, but once I was accepted and enrolled, I completed the Masters in Architecture & MBA dual program. My parents who are entrepreneurs encouraged me to learn about the business side of things to give me options later in life, just in case architecture didn’t work out. This gave me a whole new appreciation for the business side, which would prove invaluable in my journey to where I am today. I mention this because I want to reiterate that there are many ways to get to the same place, and each step, each decision, changed my path.
One of the biggest decisions that changed my career trajectory was my thesis at the end of grad school—not the topic itself, but the grunt work it entailed. Because I expected that I would work in a design firm, I planned to draft my thesis using AutoCAD software to produce the final product. Just before beginning, I learned about Revit, a 4-D modeling software that had been out for a little while but was still new to the industry. I shifted gears and spent the next semester teaching myself the program and developed my entire thesis using Revit to show floor plans, structural plans, Mechanical Electrical Plumbing design, as well as 3-D renderings of my building.
Upon graduation, I received the advice to go into either education design or healthcare design, as my dream of designing fun spaces like resorts and casinos was not a recession-proof sector. While I had the opportunity to work in a K-12 studio at a firm I interned with, I turned it down and bet on myself … which, thanks to my Revit experience and exposure from my thesis, resulted in 11 job offers out of school. I not only had a desired skillset, but I was one of very few who knew the program and could use it from day one. Trusting my gut had gotten me this far, so I went with it again when I accepted an offer at a large international firm. This would be the beginning my professional journey that would bring other twists that would eventually lead me to a career in construction.
Because I entered the job market at a time on the verge of Revit’s launch, I found myself training teams on the software just two years out of school. We would turn over one team at a time until everyone was proficient, further cementing me as a Revit expert and go-to in the company. My expertise then led to my appointment to run the VDC efforts for a large IPD healthcare job. I managed the Revit drawing teams and led the coordination of the entire hospital, working alongside the contractor and trades. This was my first exposure to modeling for construction, and it was then I found my passion to see how all the parts fit together. I was putting in 14-15-hour days for this and other healthcare jobs, and I never got the chance to see how my designs were brought to life, which only fed my hunger for construction.
That chance came calling when a former classmate and old friend of mine tracked me down to see if I would come on board to help him build the Dallas office for an architecture firm out of Phoenix. I was only there for about a year when jobs were put on hold and work dried up—but it was with this company that I was exposed to JE Dunn. Had I never taken the chance to jump to a different architecture firm, I would not have reconnected with a coworker from my former firm who now worked at JE Dunn.
I jumped into an opportunity with JE Dunn headfirst, even though I had no idea what I was signing up for, but my career up to this point was full of taking chances–so I figured, why not give it a shot? The learning curve was huge. When I started in architecture, I had the advantage of already being an expert when I walked in the doors, but construction and virtual coordination was a whole new world. Out of my element, I did the only thing I knew how; I spent two years learning how the company was structured and how the business side worked. I dedicated my time to getting used to the different personalities and roles, so I could better balance giving direction with relationships. My initial goal was to figure out how to make everyone successful.
One way to do that was to hire people who know how to do what I didn’t; this allowed me to focus on what I could do well, which was bridge the gap between architects and construction operations. My day to day consists of wearing a lot of different hats to help a lot of different people. I have figured out that I can sometimes speak the architecture language and the construction language to get a positive outcome in the end. This can be as simple as reviewing a 3-D model with a design team pointing out constructability items early, sitting down with a maintenance team at a facility and talking about items that would make their lives easier, or even educating our internal teams on problems before they become added costs to the project.
Pursuing a career in construction as a female is challenging, and it’s different … but the beauty of it is there are not only different paths and roles, but there are so many ways to get there. Whether it’s trade school or a traditional degree—or a roundabout path of an unaccredited program followed by grad school—to find your niche, it comes down to taking chances and finding your passion, because you never know where it may lead. My career thus far has been shaped by my quest for knowledge and believing in myself, and I have to think that is a recipe for success for any female in this industry.
Article originally ran in NAWIC Today on May 13, 2020.