On the last day of 2016, I gave birth to my baby girl in the hospital that I have built over the past 15 years of my life.
Every part of this hospital carries a memory. There’s the ironwood tree I spent two days searching for in the desert, so it could be transplanted in the healing garden. There’s the coffee shop nearby where I would try to wake up before my 5 a.m. shifts, walking the jobsite before daybreak to determine what we needed to accomplish that day.
I’m the youngest project executive in the Phoenix region for DPR Construction, managing the largest project that this large contractor has ever built in the area—the $318-million renovation of Banner University Medical Center Phoenix.
Building hospitals is different than building other types of facilities, because of the systems and 24/7 operational needs. Everything needs to operate in tandem, like a finely tuned machine, to prevent injury, improve efficiency and successfully deliver a project—especially one of this size, scale and technical complexity. It’s challenging.
Sometimes I look back at my career to date and wonder how I got here. I work in an industry that is only 9.3% women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but I am lucky to work for a company that has empowered me to be myself, to strive for my own success and to ask for what I want.
From an early age, I excelled at math and science, and was always building forts and structures out of blocks. The summer between my junior and senior year as a construction engineering major at Iowa State University, I accepted an internship offer with DPR.
The jobsite I was assigned to had not started construction yet, so there wasn’t a lot for me to do. I spent my first week as an intern reading Lotus Notes and books—and taking my own initiative to go out into the field on job walks with the superintendent.
I have always been willing to speak up when I’m confident in something, and I was confident that this was not the empowered, challenging internship that I signed up for. I picked up the phone and called our intern mentor—who 15 years later, is still a close colleague of mine—and I was honest and candid with him. I wanted challenges, responsibilities, problems to solve.
I wanted to build great things.
I was immediately switched to another project. Never once did anyone make me question that I did the right thing by speaking up for what I believed was right. I knew I had made the right decision for myself, but I also knew there would be challenges throughout my career I would have to face that my male peers would not.
If you want to be heard, you need to continue to speak up and be confident in your own capabilities, whether you’re a 25-year veteran or an intern in her first week on the job. Being at the right company that empowers and respects the individual really helps.
My first full-time project at DPR was at the same hospital project I am building today.
I was given a lot of responsibility early on in my career, because I asked for it. I continued to raise my hand for challenging projects as I progressed to becoming a project engineer, project manager and project executive.
I worked hard, learned as much as I could from the people around me, and continued to prove to my teams and mentors that I could manage large-scale, technical projects and all their moving parts. I always was supported by our company’s leadership, and in turn, I have guided others–male or female–to focus on their natural strengths and be true to who they are.
Over the course of my career, I’ve gone from having a chip on my shoulder because I was a woman, to asserting that it makes no difference, to accepting that I am different. Early on in my career, I spent a lot of time trying to prove that I was just like the guys, but I came to realize that my biggest differentiator could also be one of my biggest strengths.
I am a woman, I am a mother and I am a leader at DPR; they are not mutually exclusive. I am comfortable in my own skin, and I focus less on my gender and more on being an effective leader and technical builder.
I chose an OB/GYN that delivers at this hospital because I felt there was no better place for me personally to bring my daughter into this world.
I felt like I was coming full circle, with the child I gave birth to at the site of the project I helped create (in one of the very same rooms I built back in 2004!)—two of the most unique challenges in my life.
And one day, I can’t wait to bring my daughter back here, so I can show her—that’s where you were born and what Mommy built!
Gretchen Kinsella is a project executive at DPR Construction and part of the firm's Phoenix business unit leadership team. DPR has launched in March a year-long "Celebrating Women Who Build" campaign to recognize technical achievement in the AEC sector. Gretchen can be reached at email@example.com.