This article is one in a series of conversations with women leaders in the construction industry. 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 roster of work has ranged from advanced technology to commercial to education. Notable projects include the Bayer CropScience 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 annually visits California’s capitol building to participate in the proclamation of Women in Construction Week. She has also given keynote addresses and taken part in panel discussions during the SRBX conference and other industry events.
She is a 17-year member and past president of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, the construction industry’s oldest and largest association in the region and is a founding member of the association’s non-profit education division and started a mentor program that has since grown to 100 affiliates.
Here, Cowan talks with Construction Dive about the benefits of a construction career.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: How long have you worked in construction?
KELLEY COWAN: I interned at a project site the summer before my senior year in college, and have been working in commercial general contracting since I graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1993. My father’s family was in construction, so I grew up around the industry.
What do you do in your current job and where are you located?
I am the director of XL Construction’s Sacramento, California, office and oversee the region’s operations. My focus ranges from business and market strategy, to ensuring our team members are being developed while working on challenging projects to operational best practices.
What led you to choose construction for your career?
Initially, I chose this industry because my father, grandfather and uncle were in it. When I was young, I would go to work with my dad when I had a school break to a jobsite or a meeting at an architect's office. But I’ve continued in construction because it’s a dynamic industry full of creative, technical and hardworking people; every day is different.
What are a few of the projects you've most enjoyed working on and why?
The Bayer Crop Science project we did in West Sacramento was our first larger project in this area. It was a design-build delivery, so it was very collaborative among all parties. We consolidated several of their regional labs and offices into one location. It included office space and support areas, but its main components were a pilot plant and labs for their biologics and seeds groups. We also built prefabricated greenhouses from the Netherlands. It was a really interesting project for a very sophisticated client.
For the last half of my career, I’ve focused on public education projects. Bringing best value and collaborative approaches to public clients on projects often funded by their own communities is rewarding on many levels.
What advice would you give to young women considering construction as a career?
The projects we work on have purpose and are technically interesting, and yet they're put together by people. There's a big relationship side to what we do. You do nothing on your own. It's a very team-oriented industry and you just never stop learning. From that aspect, it's got so many great things for which I would encourage a motivated young woman to get involved. There’s so much opportunity.
Because I get a lot of questions from women about finding their voices, I tell women to stay true to themselves.You don't have to act like someone you're not or dress like someone else to be heard, to fit in and to be successful. When you’re on a team, you're at the table because someone knew you deserved to be. You are not a token; you are literally being paid for your contribution. You owe it to your employer, your team and your client to speak up in meetings, ask questions and provide your ideas.
I also tell young women…and men…to work in a way that aligns with their purpose. I suppose this is similar to “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” From my experience, this can be with a company that’s a cultural fit or shares your values, or one that works in markets you support.