In 2008, after success as an electrical engineer working for others, Kimberly Moore decided to take a leap of faith and start her own firm. Unfortunately, the then-28-year-old couldn’t have had worse timing. “I was a kid and had no idea of what a recession was, and I landed right in the middle of it,” says the Chicago native.
To make ends meet while still keeping her fledging company alive—if only by email address—Moore worked as a barista at Starbucks and other noncompeting jobs. “In 2012, I got the opportunity once again to open my doors, and this time it stuck,” she says. Since then, Moore has grown the one-woman operation into a successful consulting engineering firm of about 60 employees with back-to-back years of triple-digit growth. “The reward has paid off more than I could have even imagined.” She especially values “the changes in the lives of the people that we hire and how we affect their families, their day-to-day lives and their career paths.”
Moore’s story illustrates how young people under the age of 40 have been reshaping the face of the industry. It’s just one of the compelling journeys that brought a group of 20 young professionals to San Francisco in early June to ponder the biggest opportunities and challenges at their firms and in their careers and to brainstorm the path forward.
ENR’s Top 20 Under 40 class of 2018 was selected from 475 nominations submitted last fall from all niches of the industry. ENR’s 10 regional U.S. editions assembled local juries that identified up to 20 winners in each region. A panel of new national judges reviewed the 50 top-scoring individuals among those 177 regional winners and selected these 20 individuals to represent the pinnacle of leadership skills, community service, work ethic and talent.
The judges, working independently, appeared drawn to applicants who represent the rapidly changing composition of the industry. For example, women make up three quarters of the honorees, several of whom are women of color.
“These emerging construction leaders epitomize an industry that is transitioning from an image of Caucasian blue-collar kingpins to a community of well-educated professionals embracing a diverse workforce and rapidly-changing technologies,” says E. Colette Nelson, former chief advocacy officer for the American Subcontractors Association and one of five judges for the competition.
The winners represent geographic and professional diversity as well. At least one winner came from each of ENR’s 10 regions. The group included contractors, engineers, entrepreneurs, architects and educators.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Moore wasn’t the only one in the Top 20 who had taken the plunge into uncharted career waters. Born in Chicago but raised in Iran, honoree Pardis Pishdad-Bozorgi says attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2005 was a risk because of her limited exposure to U.S. culture and the English language. The decision became a key turning point in her career. “I met lots of intellectual people from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds,” she says. “It broadened my horizons and opened my mind, which is why I decided after graduation to continue my education and diversify my knowledge.”
She has since parlayed her lengthy education—including a PhD and three master’s degrees—into a career in academia where she enlightens the next generation on project delivery and building construction as a professor at Georgia Tech.
After serving more than four years in the Marine Corps, Colby Barrett attended Yale Law School. But rather than pursuing a “sure thing” career at an established law firm, he decided in 2008 to take the reins of a small engineering and construction company, GeoStabilization International, where he had previously worked a variety of jobs. “What really attracted me to take this risk was the ability to have a positive impact on the world,” Barrett says. “I knew that I could do some good in the legal field, but the ability to make our transportation infrastructure safer and more reliable with the work we were doing was something I couldn’t pass up.” He has since grown the company to around 400 employees today from 31 employees in 2008.
Mentoring Benefits Individuals, Companies
Many of ENR’s Top 20 have benefitted personally from both formal and informal mentoring during their early careers. As beneficiaries of that early industry wisdom, they have become big believers in paying it forward.
“Without the mentorship, guidance and direction I have received to date, I would not be where I am today,” says Patricia Scroggin, now a principal with Burns & McDonnell. “Mentoring is a critical part of both a company’s culture and success. It can make the difference between a moderately engaged employee and an employee that actively promotes the company.”
Adds Beatrice Spolidoro, an architect with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative: “My mentor was really instrumental in teaching me how to be creative in a productive and standardized way, and how to make a difference.” As a result, she says, “I try to always mentor the younger generation.”
Others see mentoring as a key building block in the effort to improve the broader industry’s culture one company at a time.
The only way that a successful company’s “unique culture can be maintained through the years is by passing it along to the younger generations who eventually become the firm’s future leaders,” says Jessica Baker, vice president with engineering firm Halff Associates.
“Whether in a corporate setting or in the context of a professional organization, mentoring is essential to ensure the engineering industry evolves and grows,” Baker adds. In her opinion, mentoring encourages the exchange of ideas, challenges individual growth and provides vision.
“All of these things serve to make our professionals—and thus our industry—stronger,” she says.
At the same time, not all mentoring programs succeed. Nathan Peck, president of Kaplan Construction, has seen corporate mentoring efforts both succeed and fail. For him, the difference may come from employee buy-in.
Such programs are most successful when mentoring happens naturally among team members, says Peck, who once participated in a mentoring program featuring “forced” pairings that ultimately failed.
Also, Peck sees mentoring as making it easier for young people to navigate the rough-and-tumble construction industry without getting overly negative about their chosen career path.
“This can be a tough industry. Without support and mentoring, it can chew some people up and spit them back out,” he says. “That kind of experience leads to people changing career paths and job turnover. It can be an overwhelming barrier to an organization as well as an industry.”
For Tommy Opland, a senior project manager with Modern Communications Systems, mentoring gives younger workers “the opportunity to peek behind the curtain or observe a meeting that they typically would not be invited to,” he says.
“The best mentoring I received came from exposure, by being invited to listen in on a meeting well above my pay grade,” he adds. “Learning through exposure and experience is just as important as giving advice and guidance.”
Iana Tassada, who could not attend the roundtable in person (because it conflicted with her wedding!), sees mentorship as a vital component of any long-term corporate success.
With a mind-set that employees are a firm’s greatest asset, Tassada, vice president and aviation group leader for JE Dunn Construction, says companies should understand that “investing and mentoring people as they grow helps set them up for success and happiness in their careers, which in turn makes a company successful.”
Moreover, Tassada adds, “If someone feels like they have a mentor and a sounding board and are being heard, they will feel valued and more committed to an organization.”
Mentoring creates an opportunity for alignment along all levels of an organization, she says. “No matter how transparent and communicative a company feels it is, messaging can sometimes be misunderstood by those younger [employees], so having that safe forum to ask questions of leaders is important.”
Mentoring can take on even more importance for women in construction. “I was the fifth female principal in my firm’s 85-year history, so there weren’t a lot of females for me to reach out to,” says Kristi Grizzle Gollwitzer, principal and project manager with Walter P Moore. “Fortunately, I was involved in networking and organizations outside of my company, and so I was able to find those female mentors.” Now in a leadership role, Grizzle Gollwitzer finds that young women seek her out for advice.
Attracting Leaders of Tomorrow
Several of the Top 20 take inspiration from their own career paths in thinking of how to attract the next generation to the industry.
As a single parent, Gloria Samuel struggled to balance raising her son with pursuing a college degree full time, and had doubts halfway through about her ability to juggle both roles. But she persevered and eventually earned a master’s in business administration, and she now works as a project leader and vice president for Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati. “It’s important to share similar stories with all of the youth who are looking for opportunities in the industry and be open, honest and patient with them. I really believe that one of the best ways to recruit is to not just come from a space of an employer, but come from a space of someone who cares,” she adds.
Preconceived notions about what it means to work in construction need to be broken down, says Kimberly Davids, general manager at the Weitz Co. “People usually assume I swing a hammer when I tell them I work for a general contractor,” she says. “As an industry, we need to do a better job educating the younger generations about what the construction industry can offer. In my career, I have bettered communities, built destinations and had the opportunity to travel to and live in amazing cities.”
Ashly Coggins, construction manager with Fluor, says that the industry should be reaching out, especially to young girls, as early as grade school to compete with other industries. “Until college, I had never been exposed to construction even though my grandfather and uncle are electricians, I think in part because of my gender,” she says. “If you start the outreach at the high school level and even middle school, often it’s too late. So one of the programs that we started was doing that outreach at the third- and fourth-grade level, reaching out specifically to girls and those focusing on construction skills to introduce them to the trades.”
Danei Cesario, associate with Array Architects in New York City, laments the lack of women of color working as architects. “As the 333rd black female architect registered in the U.S., part of what I am passionate about is putting myself out there so that a young person who’s coming up through the ranks in school or just starting out in their career can see somebody that may look like them with a story that resonates,” she says. Through her work as co-chair of AIA New York’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, she says she helps propel women and people of color with diverse backgrounds to help the profession better reflect its diverse clientele.
Culture of Success
Once firms attract young talent, company leaders must create a work environment that fosters inclusion, flexibility and enrichment, say the Top 20.
GeoStabilization’s Barrett sees his company’s culture as its biggest strategic advantage. “I spend more than half of my time making sure that our culture is as strong as it can be and that it’s taught to all the new people that come in,” he says. Instead of just writing down a list of values and calling it a day, Barrett says “you really have to live those cultural norms. It shows in who you bring on board, who you promote and who you let go.” Core values should be reinforced at every group function and during every employee review, he adds.
Monique Aguilar, a senior program manager at Port of Long Beach, believes servant leadership would make an ideal cultural framework for a successful firm (see sidebar). “I believe in the principles of employee engagement” to help them “feel fulfilled and have autonomy over their projects,” she says. Rather than top-down leadership, she advocates “leading by example and working with others on succession training so that they become leaders as well one day.”
Ryan Gallagher, principal at KEH & Associates, challenges companies that say “we are doing it this way because this is the way it’s always been done.” He says, “I never want to hear that. I want to hear ‘we’re doing it this way because it’s the right way to do it.’ And I think that’s something that really resonates with our generation because we’ve been such a big part of change in every aspect of our personal lives and careers,” he says.
Company culture can manifest itself in the ways projects are delivered as well, says Brett Earnest, vice president at Clark Construction. Regardless if the delivery method is hard bid, design-build or integrated project delivery, “you can still run your meetings collaboratively. You can still get involved early on. You can still ask the right questions to make sure that the job gets done correctly and that everyone’s having fun at the end of the day. It’s about making sure your people enjoy the time that they’re there,” he says.
Array’s Cesario points to a “revolution” in how young people think of work. “Millennials were the first group of people who questioned the notion of work just being work—a place that you just report to—and your happiness doesn’t really count. We spend a lot of time at work, more than we spend at home, and there should be some joy in that and some reward or feeling of satisfaction when you walk out those doors at night.”
Of course, in today’s work environment, many professionals don’t actually stop working once they leave the office at the end of the day. Allowing individuals to tailor their workdays to their lifestyles can help firms retain top talent, says Kaplan Construction’s Peck. “It goes back to treating your employees with respect and acknowledging that everybody has different things going on in their lives” while allowing flexibility to also ensure their work gets completed, he says.
Aine O’Dwyer, CEO of Enovate Engineering, reiterates that it’s important to unplug occasionally. “As a business owner in the early phases of ownership, the problems and issues never end. You are constantly chasing something,” she says. “One of the hardest lessons that I’ve had to learn is that you have to find a way to shut it off, whether it’s not allowing your phone into the dining room, or going to yoga or running. Having that discipline is really important at any point in people’s careers because we are all accessible 24 hours a day.”
The judges praised all 20 of this year’s class of winners for laying the foundation for future all-stars. “I was very impressed by their commitment to our industry as shown not only by their leadership in professional associations, but also for their mentorship of the next generation,” says Feniosky Peña-Mora, a professor at Columbia University.
Entries are now being accepted through Oct. 1 for next year’s class at enr.com/top-young-professionals.
By Scott Blair with Scott Judy