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Fueling Change through Community: A Look Inside ElevateHER 2023

Fueling Change through Community: A Look Inside ElevateHER 2023

By Luke Carothers

The 2023 ElevateHER Symposium and Kickoff Event took place on February 15th-17th in the sun-drenched Parker Ballroom in Dallas, Texas.  Located in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood, this historic structure was designed by William Sidney Pittman who was the state’s first practicing Black architect.  A spot for Dallas nightlife in the early 20th century, the Parker Ballroom at the Kimpton Pittman hotel once rang loud with some of America’s most influential musicians at the turn of the 20th century.

More than a century later, those same halls rang not with the crooning of musicians but with the voices of women and men seeking to positively influence change in the AEC industry.  Over the course of the three-day event, new cohort members were immersed in interactive workshops and speeches from AEC industry professionals.  By the end of the event, these new cohort members would find community and shared passions, forming into teams that would set out to change the AEC industry for the better.

The 2023 ElevateHER Cohort’s first experience in the program was framed by inspiring voices from almost every corner of the AEC industry.  The first keynote speaker–Bolanle Williams-Olley–set the stage for the week’s event, urging those in the room to think boldly about themselves and their careers.  Bolanle Williams-Olley, who is Mancini Duffy’s CFO and co-owner, spoke from experience, sharing the events that shaped her life and career.  The first keynote speaker fielded questions from the audience, asking the assembled audience of new cohort members, speakers, and current ElevateHER members what their biggest barrier is.  Their responses–pay, gender bias, lack of representation–would frame not only the rest of the first keynote speech, but the conversations that would take place and the plans that would ultimately be made.

Williams-Olley used the Broken Rung metaphor to describe the culmination of these experiences.  These experiences are also reflected in current statistics which indicate for every 100 men promoted only 87 women are promoted and 82 women of color.  Williams-Olley believes that one of the first steps towards mending this broken rung is understanding that its foundation of a linear career path is not always possible or desirable.  In reimagining the broken rung, Williams-Olley believes that the missing space can be filled with an interconnected web of community and support.  With this image she urged the crowd to think about the webs of community in which they already exist, ending on a call to think boldly about their own potential as well as the potential of other women in their communities.

The second keynote speaker was Colleen Martindale, who is Preconstruction Director at McCarthy.  Martindale surveyed the room of AEC industry’s progress as it relates to other industries, sketching out a few unique characteristics of the industry that may be at the heart of some of the room’s shared frustrations.  Unlike many other industries, the AEC industry has developed a transactional- and project-based culture that, by its nature, sometimes pits architects, engineers, and construction professionals against each other.  Martindale used these characteristics as a vehicle for both assessing various methods of DEI that are already happening and methods that will be developed moving forward, posing questions about the role of men in women-forward initiatives.  

Amidst the background of these discussions, Martindale introduced the narrative of her own experience, sharing critical moments throughout her career that shaped her outlook and perspective on the challenges faced by women in the AEC industry.  Sharing both her experiences succeeding in a traditionally male-dominated field and as a musician and rockstar, Martindale stressed the importance of being your authentic self.  Martindale shared a few statistics with the room that indicated people who were able to be more authentic at work reported higher job satisfaction.  On top of higher job satisfaction, Martindale used her own experience to extend the concept of authenticity to building and strengthening relationships and communities.  Inevitably, being your authentic self requires vulnerability, but Martindale closed her speech by urging the crowd to open themselves up to vulnerability and authenticity as not only a way to build relationships, but also to inspire others.

The day’s final keynote speaker was Mallory Lindgren, who is the Senior VP of Market Development for Westwood.  Lindgren took the stage late in the afternoon.  Following the excitement of the other keynote speakers, interactive panels, collaborative workshopping, lunch, and snacks, Lindgren’s passionate speech immediately provided the room with a renewed purpose and energy.  Lindgren spoke to the importance of the work done by the AEC industry, and to its attraction to trailblazers in reference to those gathered in the ballroom.  She urged the crowd to look around amongst themselves and recognize just how special the members of the ElevateHER program are.  With this acknowledgement, the call was extended to begin thinking about leveraging this community of trailblazers to its fullest potential.

Lindgren posed a simple question: “what would it look like if we went all in on this connection to one another?”  Sharing the story of her success, Lindgren frames some of the most pivotal moments in her career as those when she experienced solidarity from someone in her community.  These experiences shaped Lindgren and she now looks for every opportunity to provide the same for others experiencing the same thing.  The day’s final keynote address ended with a simple call to action: write a letter to yourself.  In this letter, Lindgren asked the crowd to write whatever they felt was important to them, whether it was what they wanted to remember, who they wanted to inspire, what quotes do you remember from today, or anything else they deemed worthy.  The crowd wrote their letters, with many staying well over the conclusion of the day’s events, before depositing them with Zweig Group’s staff to be mailed back to them following the conclusion of the year’s program.  Despite the first day’s many moving parts and passionate discussions, Lindgren’s speech and call to action provided the perfect bridge into activities for the final two days.

The start of day two kicked off the ElevateHER Symposium portion of the event.  Over the course of the day, new ElevateHER cohort members engaged in group collaboration sessions, which were bookended by talks from speakers Marci Thompson, Lauren Aguilar, and Laura Nick.  Through this format, the new cohort members actively work amongst themselves to identify common issues and brainstorm solutions.  The ultimate goal through these various engagements is to not simply identify shared problems, but to find others who are passionate about solving the same problems.  As the day progressed, cohort members gravitated towards those with shared passions.  By the early afternoon, the entire cohort had found these individuals with shared passions and had solidified into teams.  While plans and ideas are always subject to change over time, these groups formed around solving problems in areas such as legislation, pay differences, literacy, education, and others.  

The final workshop on day two was centered around these groups working together to form a thesis statement.  In their thesis statement, groups were tasked with identifying the topic or challenge they aim to address, communicate the challenges associated with solving that challenge, and outline a plan for enacting change in that field.  The groups worked together to find anecdotes, language, and statistics to support these statements, and, by the end of the hour-long session, the groups proudly presented their thesis statements to one another.  And, just as was the case on day one, the cohort members left the event brimming with excitement to begin working on a presentation the following day.  Many cohort members worked late into the evening, preparing for the following day’s presentation before the panel of judges: Colleen Martindale, Laura Nick, and Marvin Jackson.

The excitement was palpable on day three as the newly-formed groups began pitching their new project ideas.  Again this was a collaborative endeavor, as judges and audience members alike provided feedback about the proposed ideas.  With this feedback, groups immediately set out to begin working on their projects.  As the final day concluded, the groups huddled together, making plans to meet virtually and in-person to continue working on their projects, which will be presented at the next ElevateHER Symposium.

Solving recruitment and retention problems for women in the AEC industry is and will continue to be a topic at the forefront of our discussions.  While the 2023 ElevateHER cohort continues to work on and improve their plans through to execution, there is an acknowledgement that these problems will not be solved overnight.  Rather, these passions that shine through the cohort members and their projects are exemplary of the momentum of change.  Some of the new projects will be new concepts, while others will seek to build further on projects from previous years.  As these projects grow and are executed, their reach extends to others who will benefit from progress, building new relationships and affecting more people.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.