This article is one in a series of conversations with female construction executives. Click here for past conversations.
Kelley Cowan joined XL Construction in 2010 as a Preconstruction Manager, focusing on projects in the education sector. Since then, her work list has spanned everything from advanced technology to advertising to education. Notable projects include Bayer CropScience’s Biologics and Vegetable Seeds facility, UC Davis Health Midtown Clinic, and new facilities for the Natomas Unified School District.
As an active member of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange (SRBX), Cowan visits the California Capitol annually to participate in the proclamation of Women in Construction Week. She also gave keynote speeches and participated in panel discussions during the SRBX conference and other industry events.
She is a 17-year-old member and past president of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, the oldest and largest construction association in the area, and is a founding member of the association’s nonprofit education division and has launched a mentoring program that now has 100 branches.
Here Cowan speaks to Construction Dive about the benefits of a construction career.
BAU DIVE: How long have you been working in construction?
KELLEY COWAN: I did an internship at a project site in the summer before my senior year of college and have been working in general commercial contracting in the industry since my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at UCLA in 1993.
What are you doing in your current job and where are you at?
I am the director of XL Construction’s Sacramento, California office overseeing operations in the area. My focus ranges from business and market strategy to the further development of our team members while working on challenging projects to operational best practices.
What made you decide to take up the construction profession?
I initially chose this industry because my father, grandfather and uncle worked in it. When I was young, my father and I went to work when I had a break from school, to a construction site, or to a meeting at an architecture firm. But I kept building because it’s a dynamic industry with creative, technical and hard working people. every day is different.
Which projects did you enjoy the most and why?
The Bayer Crop Science project in West Sacramento was our first major project in this area. It was a design-build delivery so it was very collaborative between all parties. We have merged several of their regional laboratories and offices in one location. It included office space and support areas, but its main components were a pilot plant and laboratories for their biologics and seed groups. We have also built prefabricated greenhouses from the Netherlands. It was a really interesting project for a very demanding customer.
In the latter half of my career I have focused on public education projects. It pays off on many levels to offer contracting authorities the best benefit and collaborative approaches on projects that are often funded by their own communities.
What advice would you give young women considering the construction profession?
The projects we work on make sense and are technically interesting, and yet they are put together by people. There is a big relationship side with what we do. You don’t do anything alone. It’s a very team-oriented industry and you just never stop learning. In this respect, there are so many great things that I would encourage a motivated young woman to get involved in. There are so many possibilities.
Since I get a lot of questions from women in order to find their voice, I tell women to be true to themselves. You don’t have to act like someone you are not or dress like someone else in order to be heard and fit to be successful. When you’re on a team, you’re at the table because someone knew you deserved it. You are not a sign; You are literally paid for your contribution. You owe it to your employer, your team, and your client to speak up in meetings, ask questions, and contribute your ideas.
I also tell young women … and men … to work in a way that suits their purpose. I suppose this is similar to “If you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life”. In my experience, this can be the case with a company that culturally suits you or shares your values or works in markets that support you.