Professional Women in Construction (@PWCTalk #HelloPWC) is a non-profit organization committed to advancing professional, entrepreneurial and managerial opportunities for women and other “non-traditional” populations in construction and related industries. It’s 1,000 members include general and specialty contractors, architectural and engineering firms, environmental services and public agencies. In August 2015, Chelsea LeMar took over as Executive Director of PWC. We recently spoke with her about the current and future state of AEC industries.
Triax: Hi Chelsea, thanks for your time! What prompted your move to Professional Women in Construction? How have your previous experiences (whether professional or personal) aided your current role at PWC?
Chelsea: Thanks for taking the time! I took this job in August 2015- I can’t believe it’s been almost two years. Previously, I worked in politics (on the presidential campaign in ’08), which led to a job at the U.S. Department of Transportation. I had the privilege of working on discretionary grant programs through the Recovery Act, such as high-speed rail and TIGER. We were giving so much money out at that time, I realized I wanted to be where the money was going. This led me to London School of Economics to get my Master in Public Administration. Following graduate school, I moved to New York without any sort of plan. After a couple random jobs (a startup and a PR firm), I finally had two offers that were much more in line with my experience and education- one from a government agency and one from PWC.
The government agency was the “safe” choice. PWC was the riskier, more challenging organization that needed a lot of work internally to grow and develop its membership and take on a larger re-branding mission. I am always up for a challenge and was excited to figure it out. I knew I could figure out how to manage the organization, but I would have a learning curve as I jumped into a new industry. The AEC industry is definitely a complicated one, and I am still learning the ins and outs, but a rewarding one. We are building NYC.
Triax: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since taking over as Executive Director?
Chelsea: The biggest challenge has really been proving myself in this role to the Board and to our members, but also proving to myself that I could put together our ideas and plans in a meaningful way. There was a lot of internal, foundational work to be done in the beginning, and Fran, who works in the office with me and wears many hats, has done a great job with that. We’re still working on some big internal projects, including our website and our membership database system, but seeing the fruits of our labor has been really rewarding. We have been quite successful at growing our membership, responding to their needs and ideas, and putting together engaging, relevant events.
Another challenge is that we’re growing. The Philadelphia chapter has opened and voted in a Board, and the Boston chapter is voting in a board in the next month or so. New York membership is growing and we’re exploring a LA chapter as well. [Editor’s Note: NY is the founding and national chapter and will be hosting a PWC Summit in January for the Boards.]
Triax: I know PWC has a sort of three-pronged mission. How do you work to achieve this on a daily basis?
Chelsea: Everything is driven by our membership. Fran and I are new to the industry, and we’re quickly learning it, but we rely on our members to tell us what they need and what they’re interested in. We get out there, we get on the phone and we talk to them every day. We’re not in a vacuum – we have experts at our fingertips—so making sure we’re leveraging that and making ourselves available. We recognize we wouldn’t be anything without our members, so that’s where our mission meets the daily.
Triax: PWC hosts many events and forums throughout the year, including panels on university construction, healthcare construction, technology and your most recent Annual Golf Outing. What has been your favorite event to date?
Chelsea: I remember moments over events. Two occurred at our Construction Chiefs event in March. The first was Stephanie Dawson, then COO at the PANYNJ, gave a powerful speech on what it means to be a leader during the first panel. The second moment was during our second panel that consisted of white, male chiefs of the largest NYC construction companies discussing how the panel would not look the same in the next 10-15 years, and how diversity is the future.
A couple other examples include our healthcare event, where the moderator really pushed panelists and the discussion to think about how things should be done versus how they’ve always been done. At the technology forum, the moderator lost control and all the dynamic discussions came from the audience, which was so fun and engaging. It’s important for our members to network and get business, but it’s also exciting to get them together to discuss trends and the future and where the industry is going.
Triax: What has your membership taught you about this space and some of the biggest challenges its facing?
Chelsea: This industry is all about relationships, which is why we do the events we do and why we’re so focused on networking. It’s been a key part of the learning process: creating a welcoming, open space where people are interested in meeting each other. With my policy background, I also love learning about all the different delivery methods.
On an industry level, MWBE (Minority Women Business Enterprise) goals are certainly important, and it’s a challenge because the capacity isn’t necessarily there right now. PWC’s role is to understand how to grow capacity so we can meet these goals. We have an MWBE mentorship program that is launching now to figure this out.
Triax: What do you think needs to happen in order to close the gender gap in construction? As I’m sure you know, women represent 47% of the workforce, but make up only 9% of the construction industry?
Chelsea: It will take time and exposure. In construction and in business, people tend to expect things to happen right away. My background in public administration and government has taught me that things take time, so it’s a matter of balancing expectations, increasing exposure and committing to it and not giving up.
Triax: What role do women play in continuing to move construction forward—whether in terms of getting women into leadership roles, spearheading technology adoption, etc.?
Chelsea: Women are people, and people have their own strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think there’s one specific piece that you mentioned that just women can change. It’s more about acknowledging and letting them into the conversation. In my Utopian vision, it’s 50% men and 50% women, but it shouldn’t be specific roles based on gender, it should be based on strengths.
Women are opinionated and have diverse views, so you also don’t want one woman to represent all women. It’s about recognizing that women are people and giving them a voice. We can’t have a token anyone.
Triax: What other female leaders do you most admire?
Chelsea: I’ve been good at finding individuals I admire and recruit to be mentors. I have a number of people I call to consult when I come across an issue, and this has only grown at PWC with my Board and members.
Kathy Hochul, the Lieutenant Governor of New York, is someone who I find really inspiring. She was a keynote at an event last year and she not only won over me, but everyone in that room. She is quite dynamic.
Triax: Do you have a personal or professional mantra or guiding principle?
Chelsea: Professionally, my guiding principles have really been consistency and transparency. I don’t want our members to have any surprises. When Fran and I are busy before an event our mantra is usually “teamwork makes the dream work.”
Personally, my mantra is Semper Paratus, Latin for “Always Ready.” I’ve had a lot of jumps in my career trajectory and I’ve tried to always be ready for new opportunities. I’m a yes person when it comes to challenges. Learning to say no has been important and a valuable lesson, but I also don’t want to lose that willingness to say yes to challenging opportunities- they end up being the most rewarding.