See all the women featured in our 2019 Women in Construction series here.
When Anayeli Martinez Real set her sights on a career in construction, she didn’t have a network of connections or insider knowledge to guide the way. Raised by a single mother in a low-income neighborhood, Real is a second-generation immigrant and the first in her family to attend college. And even after she began taking college engineering courses, she had few role models.
“Choosing a predominantly Caucasian and male career, I felt like people were like, ‘Who the hell is this Latina girl?’ I didn’t feel like I had anybody I could relate to.”
As her 11-year rise through the ranks at Kiewit Building Group demonstrates, Real has possessed the makings of a trailblazer all along. With a panache for problem-solving, a strong work ethic and the courage to put herself out there, she has cleared her own path to success, which she encourages others to follow.
From an early age, Real has never been afraid to ask questions. “I was always curious about functionalities and why things were created the way they were.”
Playing with Legos and excelling in math and science evolved into an interest in engineering and construction, so she began taking college courses while still in high school through the Bridge to Success program. The experience fed her desire to obtain a college degree, and Real began seeking out the answers and connections she needed to find her way. The director of Bridge to Success put her in touch with the recruiter for the college of engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who put Real in touch with contacts in the construction industry.
“It was a lot of research,” she said. “I would ask a question about something because the previous person put a seed in my mind.”
It was also a lot of hard work. The summer between high school and college, when many of her peers likely were enjoying their last moments of freedom, Real was job-shadowing. Through an assignment with a project engineer for a local construction company, she “fell in love with the complexity and fast pace of construction” and decided to pursue a degree in construction engineering when she attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that fall.
Building knowledge, fostering relationships
Despite a challenging academic schedule, Real interned year-round at Kiewit Corp. and sought knowledge from everyone — something she recommends for anyone starting a new career.
“The key is to start asking questions early on, because you’re new and it’s okay," she said. "If you’re afraid, it becomes harder and harder. Go out into the field and talk to everyone — the craft guys, plumbers and carpenters. Learn what they do. They will respect you so much more and you will gain so much knowledge.”
Her hustle paid off when the Omaha, Nebraska-based construction and engineering company offered her a full-time position nearly a year before she graduated.
As Real’s responsibilities grew, her problem-solving skills served her well in earning the respect of clients, subcontractors, designers and craftsmen in the male-dominated industry.
“When you introduce a woman into the situation, sometimes they look to other folks in the room for direction, but that needs to come from you,” she said. “You have to gain their respect. But a craft guy is going to challenge you in a different way than a designer.” Real’s solution? She learned what was important to each of them, then educated herself on those topics.
That inquisitive spirit has helped propel her career. She served in several engineering roles at Kiewit before being promoted to estimating manager and, just recently, client services manager in the company’s commercial construction district.
But it’s also been good for her colleagues’ growth.
“She’s not too proud to ask a question,” says Kyle Marler, who worked with Real on a project for more than two years. “And ultimately that only helps her teams.”
Matt Ramm, now the vice president of Echelon Homes, LLC, recalls when Real was assigned to his project, an expansion of Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus, in 2015. Kiewit’s practice is to “train your replacement,” and Real took the role of a mentee for Ramm’s project engineer position very seriously. As the MEP engineer and LEED coordinator, she had experience in these aspects but sought guidance to learn about the finance and contracting side of things.
“She’s willing to be humble and admit where she needs help and ask for it,” Ramm says. After “exceeding every expectation,” “she pushed me out of my position, in a good way, and enabled me to take a step up” into an estimating position, he says.
Knowledge is strength
Throughout her career, Real’s hard-earned knowledge in the field and the meeting room has given her the confidence and strength to make the tough decisions and stand by them – even in the face of opposition.
Marler notes Real once took on a particularly challenging role for the company, traveling across the country to introduce updated systems to users.
“Leading change is not always met with a positive reception,” Marler says. “But she was able to put herself out there and push to make those positive, long-term changes.”
Holding your ground can be even more difficult when the difference of opinion is within the company, but Ellie Barko, a product manager at Kiewit, recalls Real did just that when the two were working on the training and deployment of new projects and software. Real stood up for the training she felt would be best for field users even though it differed from district management’s views.
“She gets along well with a range of people, so when there are disputes, she maintains a calm, level head and is able to see it through to resolution,” Marler says.
Real credits both her daily and long-term success to finding a company that shares her values of stewardship and innovation.
“There are always going to be frustrations, but if you have shared values, you can stay motivated and still be able to grow with the company,” she says. “If I would’ve just followed the money, I would’ve felt trapped or discouraged and felt maybe construction isn’t for me."
Like Kiewit, Real also believes in preparing the next class of the construction industry. For Real, that has always meant imparting knowledge but also opening up about the struggles – and questions – she’s had along the way. Even before she graduated from college, for example, she began mentoring high school girls who were interested in construction and engineering.
“I figured I may not have a lot of knowledge to pass on, but I could share my lessons learned,” she says.
Today, Real regularly participates in job-shadowing programs and speaks to girls in middle and high school. Although more women are entering construction careers than ever before, Real was frustrated to find so many students still weren’t aware of the assistance available to them, including internships and scholarships.
“I would see their reactions, and they were just as lost as I was at their age,” she says. “I thought there should be a way to help students, especially in poorer communities, find their path early on and find those connections.”
So she became involved with the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties – a non-profit that partners with local schools and other community groups to “close the achievement gap” for children and families in poverty. The organization’s “cradle to college to career” approach hit a resounding nerve for Real, and in 2018 she was publicly elected to the coordinating council.
“It’s come full circle,” Real says of her involvement. “A lack of knowledge was a big obstacle for me. Not having connections, not knowing where to look. I was able to get through a lot of these challenges and now I’m able to help kids who are still facing the same challenges.”