Women In Construction: Advice On Leading The Change

Kelley on a ladder at a construction site during a Habitat Home build

Featuring

Celebrating Women in Construction

Each March, the National Association of Women In Construction (NAWIC) celebrates the achievements of women in the industry while raising awareness of the opportunities available and the growing role of women in construction.

We’re excited to join in the festivities by spotlighting the stories and achievements of women at Southern Energy Management and those we partner with! Here are highlights and advice from our 2020, 2021, and 2022 interviews with a few amazing women leading change in construction.

Kelley Breslow, solar project manager at Southern Energy Management

Kelley Breslow

Solar Program Manager, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2021

Quote to Live By

We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap.
– Kurt Vonnegut

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction.

After graduating with a degree in Environmental Science I moved from Northwest Illinois to Morgantown, WV where my husband was finishing his master’s degree. While in WV I witnessed first hand the environmental and social destruction caused by coal and natural gas. It was then I decided I wanted to seek a career in renewable energy. 

A couple of years later we had the opportunity to move to Raleigh, NC. Upon moving I sought out Southern Energy Management as I saw them as leaders in the solar industry (and they seemed like a cool company to work for). After applying for multiple install and other positions I wasn’t quite qualified for, I finally landed an interview and the job for an inside sales and marketing position (which I was qualified for). I quickly moved into an operations support seat as sales was, and is, not my unique talent. From there, as they say, all is history.

Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

Being a woman in male-dominated industry has had its challenges but NEVER from within Southern Energy Management or our customers. Always with outside parties challenging my knowledge and not trusting it. I never minded the challenge, it was the trust that was disheartening. Over the years this has become less and less common I believe mostly due to the industry expanding and more women being in this field.

How do you see your field evolving and what changes do you anticipate on the horizon?

Solar and other renewable energies are the future. In my opinion, we will see an overhaul of the way our energy grids are designed to accommodate renewable energies and, hopefully, make it more affordable across the country. I hope to see the same innovations across the globe so every person can have the same quality of life we are fortunate to have here in America.

Sara Collier, Southern Energy Management

Sara Collier

Lead Building Performance Technician, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2020

Fun Fact: Favorite Local Restaurant

Not a restaurant, but I get a weekly delivery from Haw River Mushrooms, and I really enjoy incorporating the different varieties of wild and gourmet mushrooms into my cooking.

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction.

I arrived here in such a meandering way – I like to say I just put myself on a path and this is where it led me. After 10 years as an organic farmer, I decided to branch out and learn about renewable energy. My local community college has a great sustainability technologies program which I enrolled in, and found myself in love with energy use analysis and building science. I have always wanted to have a career that will contribute to greater good, and now I have had two – one focused on food and one on shelter – two things everyone needs!

Walk us through your typical day at work.

I enjoy the fact that no day is really typical. Variety is the spice of life, and you might find me supporting new team members with training, analyzing building plans, talking to builders, or out in the field collecting data.

How do you see your field evolving and what changes do you anticipate on the horizon? What would you most like to see?

I am really excited about net-zero, and the possibilities of using our technical know-how to make an even bigger impact.

Which woman (from past or present) would you like to meet?

As a fellow shark lover, Eugenie Clark. Amy Sedaris, for home decor advice.

Laurie Colwander, Multifamily Services Team

Laurie Colwander

Director of Multifamily Services, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2020

Fun Fact: Favorite Local Restaurant

Fiction Kitchen

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction.

I always wanted to be a carpenter and a mechanic. I started my journey in construction as an Americorp member at Wake County Habitat for Humanity. I got to work with great volunteers and do everything from framing to trim. There, I was able to go to Alabama, Florida, and Honduras to learn new types of construction and techniques and found my love of energy efficiency.

Walk us through your typical day at work.

I work with multifamily and commercial project teams from owners to site superintendents and subcontractors to integrate energy efficiency and sustainability into their projects. On a typical day, I can be found reviewing plans and submittals or on-site for inspections to ensure insulation and air sealing is done right.

What advice would you give to other women entering the industry now? ​

Do work you are passionate about and ask all your questions. You will find others who are passionate about what they do. Everyone benefits when we all work together.

Is there a quote you live by?

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – MLK

Interview from 2021

Fun Fact

I’ve been racing bmx competitively for 16 years! I compete in the “21-30 women’s expert” class on the national level.

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction. How did you get to where you are today? Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

I never thought I’d end up in the construction sector. I always wanted to work in natural resources but in college I was pushed away from ecology and toward sustainability, and I’m glad I was. I was fortunate enough to go to a progressive university (shoutout U-Albany!) where my advisor was a woman and the head of our department. She helped me navigate being a woman in STEM from early on.

Walk us through your typical day at work.

A “typical” day is hard to define because every day is different, which is what I love about this position. Each day I’m going somewhere different and making different stops. I rely heavily on coffee and sunshine.

How do you see your field evolving? What would you most like to see?

I hope to see the housing market demand more energy efficient homes. I hope it becomes the standard.

What advice would you give to other women entering the industry now? 

Don’t be afraid to take up space in this field. At times it will feel like you stick out like a sore thumb, but you have an important job to do.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of being a first generation college graduate who is utilizing their degree.

Rachel, Project Manager at Southern Energy Management, at construction site wearing ppe and mask

Rachel Della Valle

Multifamily & Commercial Project Manager, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2021

Fun Fact: Favorite Local Restaurant

We moved to Hillsborough in the fall, so we’re still checking out the local restaurants. Right now I’d say Vinny’s Pizzeria —  we order a white pizza and add pepperoni. And of course Weaver Street Market, we always get the cilantro hummus.

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction. How did you get to where you are today? Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

My journey as a woman in construction started early on learning to be hands on with home projects as young kid. I’m thankful my parents and family instilled in me the value of hard work and seeing a project through. During high school and college I volunteered with Appalachian Service Project and Habitat for Humanity gaining a greater understanding of construction and the need for safe affordable housing in the US and abroad. That’s when I also became pretty handy at painting houses (and comfortable with ladders!). During summer breaks that was how I earned money for the school year. 

My focus at school was Environmental Studies and after I graduated I spent a year as an AmeriCorps member at the Green Built Alliance in Asheville. This was where I really learned about, got hands on experience and fell in love with energy efficiency and green building. I loved the sustainability aspect but also the people aspect. Working with people to build (a better) home for someone has such a lasting impact.

Rachel and her family
Rachel and her family!

Walk us through your typical day at work.

One thing I love about my job and perhaps this industry is that every day is different. Some days I’m out on site doing inspections, some days I’m reviewing plans at my office and some days there a lot of Zoom meetings. Variety is the spice of life!

What advice would you give to other women entering the industry now?

If you’re new to the industry or looking to get into it, learn as much as you can. Say ‘yes’ a lot. Ask all of your questions. You can do this!

Maria Kingery, Co-Founder of Southern Energy Management

Maria Kingery

Chief Impact Officer & Co-Founder, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2020

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction.

So I am an accidental woman in the construction industry, I was brought into this field by my husband. So in the beginning, actually for quite a long time, I didn’t feel like I legitimately “belonged” in the industry — it felt like it was Bob’s thing and I was just tagging along. I’ve had to overcome my own head trash for years about that, and it wasn’t until I was moving some stuff in the office a while back and noticed how many of the awards on the shelf had my name on them that I really allowed myself to own the contributions I’ve made to our company’s success.

It sounds cliche, but a related challenge I’ve had to overcome was finding my voice and having it heard and respected. In the early days in particular, I think a lot of my ideas were dismissed as being impractical or impossible to do, and I heard a lot of ‘we can’t do that’, or ‘we shouldn’t do that’, or ‘why are we doing this?’ and then years later some “expert” would advise the same thing and everyone would think it was genius (laughs).

Conventional wisdom is male in the business world in general, and in the construction industry in particular. There’s quite a bit of explicit and implicit sexism that women get to deal with that isn’t an issue for men. One colleague of mine shared a story about being invited to speak to a group of builders. When she was about to begin her talk, one of the men in the audience yelled out, “Take it off” and laughter ensued among the predominantly male audience. She was so rattled she could barely talk – tough when you’re accountable for delivering your company’s message. Now that’s an extreme example and don’t get me wrong, most of the men are caring, and as respectful as they can be. But overall there’s a strong resistance to change and that makes it hard for women to be effective on the job site at times.

What advice would you give to other women entering the industry now?

Understand the unique value that you bring with your life experiences and the privilege of having been born a woman. We have different skills and talents and the things that many men struggle with in terms of leadership, vision, and what’s possible come naturally to us. There’s real power in that and it’s critical to help us navigate the rapid change we’re experiencing at all levels of our society now. And, above all, have the courage to speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.

Profile Picture of Kristyn Mott, Team Coordinator at Southern Energy Management

Kristyn Mott

Multifamily Team Coordinator and Inside Sales, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2022

Fun Fact: Most Exciting Adventure

For me, one of the most exciting things I’ve done is traveling to Costa Rica (summer of 2018) to study abroad and learn about environmental sustainability, permaculture, and also improving my Spanish (I am not fluent and I haven’t practiced much lately, but I would love to keep learning!). Directly after that two-month trip, three of my friends and I drove from Buffalo to the north rim of the Grand Canyon (40 hours straight through), hiked around the canyon and tent camped in Kaibab national forest for a week. It was an amazing experience!

Tell us about how you got into the construction industry.

I started working in Green Building because I enjoy building design and sustainability. I also love seeing the impact that design changes have on energy & resource use as well as occupant health & wellness.

Maddie O'Beirne, Solar Project Manager at Southern Energy Management

Maddie O'Beirne

Solar Project Manager, Southern Energy Management

Interview from 2020

Fun Fact: What is your favorite local restaurant?

My favorite local restaurant is tied between Fiction Kitchen and David’s Dumplings and Noodle Bar. I am a vegetarian and Fiction Kitchen has some of the best vegetarian/vegan food I have ever had!

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction.

At the University of Delaware I studied Environmental Studies with a concentration in Environment, Society, and Sustainability. I knew I’ve always wanted to find a job working with people to protect our natural environment. You could say I am a pretty big tree hugger. I thought that teaching was my best chance at making the biggest impact on the most amount of people. I taught for about 2 years and realized I felt like I wasn’t doing enough for the planet.

I was always interested in renewable energy but was intimidated applying for a job in a field that is male-dominated. I never thought I could work in the renewable energy sector since I hadn’t graduated with an engineering degree. I took a shot and applied at Southern Energy Management and I’m happier than ever! I’ve found a job I am so passionate about where I have the opportunity to combine my love for the environment and working with others. It is an incredible feeling to see firsthand how our work is making it possible to create affordable clean energy for the Southeast. I love working for a company that is leading the fight to provide renewable energy to thousands of families and businesses across North Carolina!

Walk us through your typical day at work.

Well I eat a lot…

Is there a woman (from past or present) that you would like to meet?

I would love to meet Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist. She was just voted the youngest Time Person of the Year. She has created a youth-led global movement to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. I am in awe of her because she is a 16-year old that is educating our world leaders and advocating for science-based policymaking. I absolutely look up to her and am so inspired when I think of how much change one girl can make!

Our Partners

Interview from 2021

Fun Fact: A famous woman you would like to meet?

My childhood idol was Mary Tyler Moore.  Although a fictional character, she was the only woman I saw that had a real career – so I idolized her.  The theme song for the show still motivates me:  You’re gonna make it after all!

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction. How did you get to where you are today? Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

Throughout my life, I have always been ambitions and driven.  I strived to be the “best” at whatever I did.  Although not always successful at achieving the top spot, having this goal caused me to refine my ability to do honest self-assessments and learn the benefits of being self-driven, ambitious, and hard-working.  

When successful, the experience grew my confidence and inspired me to take on new opportunities and challenges. When I started out in the construction industry some 25+ years ago, I was literally the only woman with a seat at the table. So, I felt I had a lot to prove and had to work that much harder to earn respect and opportunity.  So over the years I have worked at achieving the right blend of “speaking up” and “being patient”.  This is still a work in progress for me. 

Walk us through your typical day at work.

As an entrepreneur and business owner, I find that I can get pulled in so many different directions.  So I start early – around 5:30 am.  I spend the first 15 minutes getting my home environment organized and boil a pot of tea.  I turn on my laptop and begin thinking through my day and taking care of work that requires a lot of concentration. I try to get that “focused” work out of the way early. At about 7:30 am, my husband and I eat breakfast and do a bible study.  8:00 am the two of us go for a 45 – 60 minute walk. By 9:15 am, I am ready to start the “interactive” part of my work day.  I tend to set up Zoom calls in two blocks (11:00 – 12:30 pm and 2:30 – 4:00 pm).  I try to knock off of work by 5:30 so I can cook a good meal and do something relaxing for the rest of the day/evening.

How do you see your field evolving and what changes do you anticipate on the horizon?

I am passionate about fighting against the status quo by identifying strategic partnerships and opportunities and by implementing forward-thinking initiatives to enhance differentiation, increase market share, and improve profitability.  I am particularly excited about the increased momentum surrounding innovative products and practices that are moving the housing industry out of the dark ages – finally.

What advice would you give to other women entering the industry now? 

Step up and say yes!  In general (there are always exceptions), a woman feels the need to prove to herself and to decision-makers that she has the capability of taking on a new role or responsibility.  In comparison, men are oftentimes assumed to have the ability even if it is not proven and are not afraid to ask for the chance. I used to prepare, over prepare and prepare some more before I would seek out a new opportunity.  Meanwhile, men less capable were capitalizing on those opportunities.  I have learned to push myself to step up, and it has paid off.  

Also, ignore the noise and negativity.  As is the case for men and women alike, you will encounter difficult people who, knowingly or unknowingly,  put obstacles in your way.  And, from time to time, you may find yourself dealing with the effects of someone who is determined to do harm to your career. My advice is to keep your head down and focus on doing your job so brilliantly that those standing in your way have no choice but to get out of the way or get run over.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the relationships I have forged in life and throughout my career.  My family, first and foremost.  Then the men and women I’ve worked along side, through thick and through thin, to create amazing communities.   

Interview from 2020

Fun Fact: What is your favorite local restaurant?

Favorite hometown restaurants are the Carrboro taco trucks, Al’s Burgers and Kitchen.

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction.

I worked in construction while in college between semesters, while college hopping, and working while waiting to establish residency in a new state. I cold-called construction companies out of the yellow pages and offered to work on the cheap to learn the ropes. I found a couple of great companies that taught me the basics, and I prided myself on carrying as much weight in lumber and plywood as the guys did.

I went to grad school for architecture and worked in the field for a short time before staying home to raise my 3 kids for 12 years. When I wanted to re-enter the workforce, I didn’t want the commitment of a 40-hour architecture firm job because I knew with three kids, they’d always be my priority and I didn’t want to feel like a slacker at work. I eventually became a general contractor and crafted my own design-build company so I could work for myself and weave family and work-life together in a way that made sense for me. It’s an evolving and growing business. I’ve got two great employees now and a host of awesome subs. We work on small-scale development projects, and we build new construction and renovation projects for clients.

Are there any challenges you've had to overcome?

Challenges? Sure. Men are often surprised that I’m a builder. They say, “well, good for you!”, something they’d never say to a man in his late 40’s in the same profession. There’s no shortage of man-splaining. Men on jobsites who don’t know me yet usually first assume I’m someone’s wife, the interior designer, the realtor or the homeowner. It’s understandable because the reality is that women make up less that 10% of the construction workforce, but it’s always just a little disheartening to have the same conversation over and over again. But as I’ve grown to be at home in the construction world, it’s my favorite place to be. I love construction culture and the great independent spirits of so many of the yes, guys, I work with most days. 

The few women I have the privilege of rubbing elbows within the construction world are super smart, strong and often are quick to share their exasperating or hysterical stories of daily work life. I’m proud that my kids get to see me work in this profession, and I’m grateful that they can tag along to job sites and sit next to me when I’m working on a new design, offering their input on space planning.

Is there a woman (from past or present) that you would like to meet?

I’d love to have been friends with Amelia Erhardt because come on, she was 100% badass.

Interview from 2021

Favorite Quote

I am inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. One of my favorite quotes about her, by her biographer, Jane Sharon DeHart sums up why — “She asked of her young admirers that they fight for things they care about, doing it in a way that leads others to join them and maintain a sense of humor. Progress is seldom linear. There are always new battles to fight and old ones to be revoked”.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the progress our industry has made over the last 20 years when I started working in this field. So many builders began certifying their homes at the base certified level and have used the Green Built checklist as the tool it is meant to b — to try out new strategies to improve their score and are now regularly building to silver and gold as their standard. So many products and services are now mainstream and, while we still have a long way to go, we have begun to be able to push the envelope even further towards net zero energy construction.

Interview from 2021

Quote to live by?

No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, show up and never give up.

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction. Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

As a little girl, I wanted to be a judge so I planned to go to law school after college, but life takes you in different directions.  I moved to NC from CA almost 20 years ago with a background in Finance and took a job with a homebuilder working on a property tax audit.  That position led me to land acquisition support roles as our VP identified that I was very analytical.  I jumped between Land and Finance roles much of my career, eventually becoming a project manager and working exclusively in land acquisition and development.  Those roles led me to my current role with Newland as VP of Operations for two of the best-selling mixed-use master plans in the Triangle market, Briar Chapel and Wendell Falls.   

What advice would you give to other women entering the industry now?

As a female in a male dominated industry, it can be intimidating.  I’ve walked into a room surrounded by navy sportscoats and often been the only female.  I’ve been singled out for that reason in quite a few occasions.  It has taken time to earn the respect to be heard and to stand up and own that.  My advice would be to find your voice.  Don’t fear the unknown, step outside your comfort zone and even if you fall short, you’ll learn from those experiences.  I have had many women (and men for that matter) champion my contributions and finding those mentors has been critical to my success. 

What are you most proud of? 

First off, my family.  Being a working mother with a demanding job is very difficult to manage without feeling constantly guilty for falling short in one area or another.  I have a wonderful supportive husband and three beautiful children, ages 5, 10 and 11.  Life is hectic but I am proud that my children can witness my hard work and  dedication and the results that come from that perseverance.  Work ethic was instilled in me by my mother and I hope to pass that along to my children.

Interview from 2020

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction. Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

The hardest thing in construction is actually taking a break from it! And I love building houses. As a woman, I am still mistaken for one of the homeowners on the site, but that quickly gets resolved once I start giving directions. I’ve only been in construction 24 years! I just tell other women to be the most knowledgeable person on the job site and not worry about the stereotyping!

Interview from 2021

Fun Fact: Favorite Restaurant

I love Thumbs Up Diner here in Atlanta. Great local spot and they have the best chicken sausage! I order it every time I go.

Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction. How did you get to where you are today? Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

After attending architecture and planning school I worked in landscape architecture firms, architecture and planning firms and then local government. The private and public sector experiences have played critical roles in my current roles as an entrepreneur, from business development to project management. Being a woman and woman of color in two male-dominated industries, construction and manufacturing has been challenging. 

Walk us through your typical day at work.

As CEO I don’t have a typical work day. But the days range from site visits, helping to pour concrete, product deliveries, supply pickups, launching fundraising campaigns, subcontractor and client meetings. 

How do you see your field evolving? What would you most like to see?

The world of modular design and construction is growing because it’s needed. With rising material and land costs as well as more attention driven towards green building standards, we have to think differently about how we build, the materials we use and where we build. Our cities and regions are growing and so developing new and scalable building technologies is key. I would like to see more investment in green building design and modular construction.

Interview from 2021

Quote to Live By

My favorite quote is by Nelson Henderson. I read it for the first time when I was in high school, and since then it’s been my motto. It’s the reason behind why I created Hope Renovations.  It goes, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not intend to sit.”

That’s what I want.  I want Hope Renovations to create real social change that will carry on and continue to grow, long after I’m gone.  

How do you see your field evolving? What would you most like to see?

I’m so happy that, not only are more women entering the skilled trades than ever before, our industry is welcoming them like never before! It’s a shame that it took a critical labor shortage for employers to realize that an entire gender was missing from the workforce… but they did, and things are changing. I get calls and emails every single week from men in our industry who want to meet our “Hope Gals” and, hopefully, hire them into their organizations. The comment I hear most frequently is, “Women make the best employees. We NEED them!” I feel like that is a major culture change that has just come about over the past ten years or so. 

I would bet that in ten years, it will no longer seem unusual to see a woman on a construction site. And my hope is that in 20 years, this industry is THE place that women want to work. I want us to build the skilled trades into a woman’s world!

What are you most proud of?

Without question, I’m most proud of the incredible women on my team. Every time I watch one of our trainees run a chop saw for the first time, or wire their first light fixture, or land their first trades interview, or confidently stroll up to accept their certificate at graduation, I’m so proud of our “S Team” that runs our training program, Sarah and Sandy.  And every time I see a beautifully completed job, or we get a sweet thank you note from a happy senior client, or we get a word-of-mouth referral asking for our services, I’m proud of our “K Team” that runs our construction program, Kate, Kat and Kate W. And of course, I’m constantly proud of Janel, our Ops Manager and “Mission Control”, who keeps things running and keeps me sane!

Our mission is big and we work SO hard at it, and these #badasswomen embody everything that Hope Renovations is about. I can’t explain what it feels like to be CONSTANTLY inspired, but that’s what every day is like for me. It’s like a big ray of sunshine endlessly pouring into my heart!

Interview from 2020

Quote to Live By

“You can do anything you set your mind to.”

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud to be a part of a great company that is willing to support women like me in achieving our goals.

Walk us through your typical day at work.​

There is no typical day. Each day is different. That’s why I love construction so much. We are always progressing. Always moving towards our end goal of project turnover. However, I will say, each day is all about communication. It’s important to talk with your subs and make sure they have what they need to be successful and in turn make you successful. We wouldn’t be anywhere without our subs. It’s about motivating each trade, and always coming in with a positive attitude despite the tough days.

About the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)

NAWIC was originally founded as Women in Construction of Fort Worth, Texas in 1953 with 16 members. Since then, NAWIC has grown to more than 150 chapters across the country. NAWIC’s mission is to strengthen and amplify the success of women in the construction industry through providing members with opportunities for professional development, education, networking, public service, and more.

Ready to Get Started?

Reach out to our project teams to share your goals and learn more!