Table of Experts: Austin leaders speak on finding the joy in the juggle

In the not-too-distant past, high school career days were filled with boys and girls congregating in deeply segregated groups. As the girls lined up to explore professional opportunities in nursing, teaching and communications, the boys clustered around tables staffed by men — where they could learn about lucrative careers in the fields of science and technology. Today, with many youth programs focused on encouraging girls to enter STEM fields, that is changing. Yet there is still much progress to be made.

Today’s Austin is a new frontier — a future world class city being built before our very eyes. The business of building is booming, and male executives aren’t the only ones taking notice. The Austin Business Journal recently gathered a panel of experts to discuss what it’s like to be a woman in today’s rapidly evolving construction industry. Participating in the discussion were Jenna Edge, CEO, Ash Creek Homes; Darcie Fowler, Central Texas preconstruction leader, DPR Construction; Shawna Sieck, principal, Legacy Lighting and Alison Satt, vice president, division manager, Swinerton Builders. Michele Anderson, CEO at Austin Habitat for Humanity served as moderator.

Michele Anderson: Let’s start by having each of you share your career journey. What piqued your interest in the building industry?

Shawna Sieck: I have a sociology degree, and I really wanted to change the world, so I had actually planned to be a lobbyist in D.C. Then, the day before we were set to move into our place in Georgetown, my husband at the time decided he didn’t want to move. Ultimately, I got a job as a receptionist within this industry. At the time, I assumed it would be temporary, but I absolutely fell in love with it! So I went from receptionist to owner, and here we are. I am changing the world but in a different way.

Alison Satt: I studied civil engineering because I knew I liked math. I knew I liked to build stuff. While I was in college, I got an internship with a design firm, but it was not for me. So the next summer, an opportunity opened up with a general contractor, building at the California Academy of Sciences, which is this beautiful museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, so I was like “Sign me up!” It was a dream job, and I fell in love with being a general contractor.

Darcie Fowler: I thought I wanted to be an architect initially, but I met a civil engineer at a career fair in high school and she encouraged me to explore that as an option, saying it would broaden my career options. So I did! I figured I could always go back and get a master’s in architecture. As an intern, I worked on the expansion of terminal four at the airport in Phoenix. These project engineers were just so cool–they had cell phones! They had brand new shiny trucks. I knew right then I wanted to be one of the “cool guys” out there facilitating the work. So, the following summer I got an internship with a general contractor in the Bay Area, building the Yahoo campus. There were purple countertops, concerts, and free lattes every day! It was the coolest job ever, and I just never looked back.

Jenna Edge: I studied marketing in college and took a job as marketing manager at Ash Creek Homes after I cut my teeth at a financial services start-up. Six months later the founder of the company said he thought I’d be a good fit for some other facets of the business. He asked if I’d like to try project management, and I figured why not? I like to learn new things, so I started learning bits and pieces, and ended up going from marketing manager to CEO!

Michele Anderson: That’s awesome. Women are great at thinking outside the box. I think it’s because we’re accustomed to juggling so many things at once, so we often need to get creative. How do you all balance your personal and professional lives in this field?

Alison Satt: Establishing boundaries and sticking to them requires a lot of discipline, but by doing that, I’m leading by example for the rest of my team. They look at me and think, “Alison’s making it a priority to be home with her family for dinner every night. I’m going to prioritize what is important to me.” Then they realize it’s ok to set their own boundaries.

Darcie Fowler: I couldn’t agree more. We keep being told “You can have it all!” and I think we can, just not all at the same time. I’ve learned to get comfortable with leaning on my team and trusting the people that I work with. I’m really fortunate in that regard, because everyone around me is super supportive of the fact that I’m a mother first.

Jenna Edge: Learning to say “no’ is so hard, but it’s really important. It’s very rare to have something that absolutely needs to be done today. Ask yourself if there is something burning down, if not–the work will be there tomorrow. So setting priorities is key.

Shawna Sieck: I’m a little older, so my kids are all grown but I never missed an event. My children know they are the most important part of my life. Well, until I had grandchildren. Seriously, now I make sure that the people I work with know they can be there for their daughter’s track meet, son’s basketball game, or any event that is important to them personally. I understand those are the things you don’t want to miss.

Alison Satt: I think COVID actually helped with this, because there was no way to hide our personal lives. People would be in Teams meetings and kids would be jumping in and out. So it really shined a light on everything we’re attempting to balance, and I think it brought more empathy into the workplace.

Michele Anderson: I was thinking the same thing. Speaking of COVID–which brought with it so many challenges–what are some other obstacles you’ve faced in this industry, and how have you overcome them?

Shawna Sieck: When I started my company 22 years ago, there weren’t a lot of women doing what we do. To make it work, I really had to figure out how to do things differently. I wanted to create a culture based on integrity, empathy, incorporating family, and valuing our roles as nurturers. Apparently, it has worked out great because people are constantly wanting to come work for us.

But three years into this journey, I got a phone call, and he said “Hi, honey, I need to talk to a man who knows something.” I joke with him about it now–he still works in the industry. I mean, I get it. This industry was 100% male when I was growing up. I’m glad that has finally changed, because now there will be fewer assumptions about who women are and what we know.

Alison Satt: I was on a job once where I was referred to as “the girl.” So that lit a fire under me, and I was determined to earn some credibility and eventually become the authority in the room. I do see why younger women leave the industry, because it does take time and it takes a lot of patience. Even today, people will assume that there’s a man in charge. So that’s frustrating, but I spend a lot of time making sure that I know all of the technical aspects of construction. I think as women in this field we probably put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make sure we can answer any question, since so many people will assume we can’t.

Darcie Fowler: I think my greatest failures were when I tried to be something I wasn’t. When I finally realized that I had different strengths that I could bring to the table, that was a real breakthrough moment. Ultimately, I made a conscious decision to embrace the skills that I already had. When you have a high emotional intelligence, you can read a room–and there’s value in that. Once I felt comfortable showing up as my true self, instead of trying to embody the characteristics expected of a man in the industry, then I could really shine.

Michele Anderson: That’s wonderful. Tell me about some things you’ve done to be effective leaders in your companies. Conversely, what are some things that haven’t worked?

Jenna Edge: Being creative has worked really well for us. A few years ago, during COVID we had to be creative to get around all of those supply chain shortages. Creativity is a strength that always bubbles up in our success stories. As for things that haven’t worked, I think maybe keeping people around too long because I like them as people, even though they may not be the best fit for the company. It’s tough. But the moment you release them to do what they do best in the world, the whole team just breathes this sigh of relief, and you see this amazing growth.

Darcie Fowler: Exactly. I think the greatest lesson for me was learning how to put people in places where they could be the most successful. Once you do that, the quality of a given team’s work–and their productivity–expands exponentially.

Michele Anderson: I’d like to hear how your companies are bringing women into the trades. What are you doing to encourage them to take on non-traditional roles, and what are some of the best practices to create inclusive environments?

Jenna Edge: We’re not doing anything specifically to recruit women. Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure. It goes back to what we’ve just been talking about, right? What are people good at, and what are they interested in? It doesn’t matter what their gender is, any more than their race or religion. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I don’t want to compare myself to anybody else–male or female.

Darcie Fowler: I think we’re limited to the pool of workers that are provided to us, right? So it all comes back to education, and getting students excited about construction and the trades. When young girls see women at these STEM events, that is huge, because it opens their minds. Aside from that, DPR has developed a skilled trade apprenticeship program that has encouraged a lot of women to join the trades. It has been exciting to walk around our job sites and see so many women working in a variety of roles.

Michele Anderson: Thinking about human resources in general, what have your companies done to retain the talent you have?

Alison Satt: Difficult question. I think that changes with every generation. Right now it seems to be extra challenging to retain younger people. A lot of younger people want to be promoted really quickly. They want to see pay raises. For instance, it’s difficult to compete against tech companies, where they do pay a lot more money. I think that does add to the labor shortage in the construction industry. You can’t say to younger personnel, “I’m working 12 hours a day, why aren’t you?” because they will walk away.

One of the challenges in the construction industry is that we have really demanding clients who want their projects built quickly. We have to stand together and say, “We will not work seven days a week, sorry–we can’t do it.” If we try to be competitive by over-committing, that’s just creating an untenable work environment for everyone in our industry. In the end, it’s about providing a great quality of life for people.

Darcie Fowler: Among new college graduates, we are seeing more and more women being hired for project engineer roles across the country. I think that’s fantastic. The biggest challenge we’re facing now is this: how do we keep the women in the industry and elevate them to leadership roles?

Shawna Sieck: We’re a bit different. Our people do not leave. When we hire people, we want them to have the right skills for the job, obviously. But we also ask them who they are personally and what they want out of life, even if it is something unrelated to the job they applied for. We helped someone start a fashion company, and they still work in our business. We helped another person launch an integration business. That kind of support means a lot to people. Another person told me she’s always loved design, so I said “Ok, we can teach you that.” She now has her LC, lighting certification. So that’s our secret to keeping people around appreciate who they are in totality.

Jenna Edge: We’re not a big production home builder, and we don’t want to be. One of the benefits of being smaller is that we get to know each and every one of our customers. They are not just a number. So our team loves being able to make a difference, and to really be a part of someone’s life while watching a neighborhood grow and become a community full of happy homeowners. We may not be the highest paying, but it’s a highly satisfying job, and that does have value.

Michele Anderson: Absolutely. Are there outside resources, groups or organizations that are particularly good for those in your field?

Alison Satt: I really like ULI (Urban Land Institute). I’ve met a lot of people in the Austin area who are involved with ULI, and I’m on the P3 committee and DEI steering committee with them. Since I’m fairly new to the Austin area, that has really helped me to learn who all the players are here. It’s been great.

Darcie Fowler: I think RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin) does a great job for young people coming up in this industry. CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) was great for me when I was in San Francisco, and I have also been involved in their local events here in Austin. Networking is the best thing you can do, generally speaking–whether it’s women or men. Just meet as many people as you possibly can. You never know where a connection is going to take you in the future.

Jenna Edge: I’ve been involved with the HBA (Homebuilders Association of Austin) and they do a great job, but I think what has worked best for me is mentorship. If you can surround yourself with a few key people you admire–people who support you and understand your goals and will hold you accountable–that can be truly invaluable. If you can meet with them regularly, you will grow and flourish in ways that you never imagined.

Shawna Sieck: We’ve been lucky enough to be involved in several lighting, design, and electrical groups like IALD (International Assn of Lighting Designers), AIA, IIDA, IES, AGC, RECA, DBIA, IBEW, and IEC. (Darcie mentioned CREW earlier, and of course there’s also WIA (Women in Architecture). I love that there are actually organizations especially for women in this industry today. Again, having been in this business for a long time, I remember when it was just a roomful of men. So I am excited about all of the changes, and I’m anxious to see what the future holds.

Michele Anderson: What are some misconceptions or stereotypes about women in construction that you would like to dispel?

Jenna Edge: One misconception is that there’s a ceiling for us in this industry. But if you want it, if you’re serious about it–you can do it. It will just take some patience, and some grit.

Alison Satt: Exactly. In construction, there are fewer female superintendents, but I actually started in the field as a superintendent, and I honestly think women are just as good or better at it than men. It takes a lot of listening. You have to listen in order to hear the real problem because what you’re doing in that job is problem-solving all day long. Traditionally, women have shied away from that route because they don’t see a lot of other women doing it. However, if they will just give themselves a chance, I believe they can skyrocket quickly on that path because they are naturally suited to it. The superintendent career path can lead to CEO, just as well as the project manager path can.

Michele Anderson: What’s your best advice to other women who are building a career in this industry – whether they are starting out or mid-career?

Alison Satt: Find what makes you different, and then lean into that. As we discussed earlier, there are a lot of people in this business who have been doing things the same way over and over and over for years. Change is hard, but we need to move with the times. Be open to doing things a little differently.

Shawna Sieck: There’s so much great technology now. There’s a robotic dog that can map projects! There are drones that can take pictures now, of the progress, REVIT which can render prior to building. So thank goodness we had people who were open to new ideas, or we wouldn’t have any of these wonderful tools we have now.

Darcie Fowler: My advice would be to stay curious. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. As we begin to see more women in leadership roles in this field, it will be critical to elevate each other’s voices. So if there’s only two women in the room, and you notice someone is being interrupted, say something supportive. A small gesture like that can go a long way.