As structural engineer Jan Vacca stopped in her office to grab coats and bags before heading to a jobsite in Philadelphia, she apologized for the clutter to graduate student Megan A. Toumanios—Vacca's "shadow for a day." Clutter aside, the eye-catcher in the office that morning was the desk wall, which is papered with pithy sayings.
The many postings, including good-behavior lists, are like mantras. "They are a comfort to me and they reground me," says Vacca, a vice president of The Harman Group Inc., King of Prussia, Pa.
On March 27, Vacca offered advice to Toumanios, a future structural engineer graduating from Lehigh University. "Don't be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes," Vacca said. "That's how we learn."
Vacca also shared her philosophy. "I am adamant that a design and construction process involves everybody—contractors, subs, everybody," said Vacca. Her own involvement in a subcontractors' association opened her eyes to the importance of collaboration, she said.
When there is a field issue, Vacca helps fix it rather than point fingers. "Jan has the ability to look at all parameters and achieve a goal," said Leonard Poncia, president of Aquinas Realty Partnership.
Toumanios drank it all in, trailing Vacca through her rounds and watching her deal with men. This included an in-house job meeting, a jobsite visit and a client-contractor brainstorming session.
"Jan is very impressive. Everyone respects her," said Toumanios. "The field is the most unwelcome and intimidating place for a woman," she added. "Jan's gender did not come into play."
"The responsibilities of being a structural engineer are huge," the 25-year veteran of engineering told her protégée. "Sometimes, it keeps us sleepless."
Career-related insomnia hasn't slowed Vacca. She is currently leading some two-dozen projects, valued at $750 million. She has designed schools, hotels, casinos, resorts, hospitals, parking garages, residential buildings and office structures.
Though the only female of four shareholders in her 25-person firm, the 57-year-old Vacca has little patience for special treatment of women. "The last thing I ever want to be is isolated as a female engineer," she said. "I want to be an engineer who is female." Invoking another mantra, she added, "'I am what I do, not what I am.'"
Vacca's rise to vice president was slowed somewhat by the duties and responsibilities of single motherhood. But her daughter, Morgan, is grown, freeing Vacca to attend to her own professional bucket list. "I would love to do a 100-story building," she said.