One woman's journey from architect to leading healthcare construction expert
Stacey Pray, who has owned a successful project management firm for 23 years, celebrates the women and diversity within the company she built.
See all the women featured in our Women in Construction series here.
On her first day in a healthcare architecture job, Stacey H. Pray, AIA, ACHA, CASp, found herself in the middle of a hospital’s intensive care unit taking measurements, surrounded by people in critical condition and listening to nurses chat about their pending lunch hour and what specials the cafeteria had that day. As someone who had never even been in a hospital before, she recalls wondering what she got herself into.
Pray started chasing her architect dream at age 11 after taking an aptitude test in elementary school. The results told her she should be an artist and her parents, wanting to support her ambition yet ensure she chose a stable career path, suggested allied professions, including architecture.
Fast forward to architecture school, when one of her professors invited a specialist to class each week. Pray thought she wanted to specialize in historic preservation, and had no interest in healthcare facility design. Fortunately, Pray rarely looks back at the passion of her youth and compares it to the reality of life.
As it turns out, healthcare is exactly where she should be.
Owning a company
Although she went into architecture with the intent of designing buildings, Pray quickly realized that unless you’re a Franky Gehry-type designer, the building owner has design control.
"As an architect, it was frustrating to have a vision for a project and the owner would say, 'Hmm, that's not my vision; this is my vision.' Then you have to go back," she said. Shortly after getting her license, she transitioned to the owner and project management side of construction.
After marrying and moving to Northern California, she found that the only local architecture firm hiring specialized in healthcare. "I had no choice," she recalled. "It was the only job available."
She eventually transitioned to working for Tenet Healthcare, which at the time was based in Santa Monica, California. When the company decided to relocate its corporate headquarters to Texas in the mid-1990s, though, she faced a crossroads.
Pray and her husband weren't interested in moving to Texas and leaving behind his successful career, so she approached her boss with a proposal to stay on as a consultant, which he agreed to. Thus, her firm, SHP Project Development was born.
"The first year I was in business, he was my only client and I worked fully on Tenet projects," she said. "After about a year and a half, I started getting more and more clients. One of the things I’m still very proud of is 22 years later, Tenet is still a client."
SHP Project Development is small, but its eight-member staff is diverse. Pray employs at least 50% women and employees are from different ethnicities.
She retells a story to illustrate the anomaly of having a largely minority and female staff in a primarily white male industry. In 2016, she and three female coworkers attended the Construction Management Association of America conference. The conference photographer snapped a photo of the four women — two Anglos, one Asian and one Hispanic — and ended up using that photo for the 2017 conference advertising. The four women stood out in stark juxtaposition to the array of balding and graying male heads in the background.
Pray, who says she's at the tail end of her career, is concentrating on succession planning. Much to her surprise, Pray's daughter, Kelly, joined the company and is part of the succession plan.
"I'm constantly trying to hire people who will be interested in going on after I leave," she said. "They say small companies, if they're lucky, will last five years. Twenty-three years after I started mine, I'm more viable than I was five years in. I'm very proud of that."
The healthcare architecture field is constantly evolving and necessitates constant learning, even for niche experts like Pray.
"I found it's very satisfying to become an expert in your field, whatever it is," she said. "It's interesting and fun to learn about all the different equipment and methods of delivering healthcare. It's constantly learning. Whatever you end up being an expert in, it's fascinating."
While working for Tenet, Pray spent five years working in a hospital managing its projects, which she describes as invaluable experience that allowed her to learn hospital management, corporation management and what it takes to put together a construction project.
Pray advises new graduates to always give their careers 100% effort. "Wherever your path leads, there is no going backward," she said. "It's always lateral or forward."
For her, success is work-life balance. Pray grew up with what she describes as very forward-thinking parents and has a supportive husband. "It was the people around me who helped me," she said.
Familial importance never waned and she remained cognizant of it when she started SHP Project Development as the mother of two small children.
"It's important to have an interesting, exciting career at the same time you’re engaged and involved with your family or personal life," she said, adding that a successful career doesn't have to necessitate working 60 hours a week. "[My firm is] never going to be large, but you don't have to be. It's much more valuable to look back on my life and see my amazing kids. I think one of the reasons for their strength is that they saw a strong woman having a successful career. Even though I wasn't there 100% of the time, I was able to be there enough of the time and for their critical goals and when they asked me to be."
To some, architecture has a reputation as being an old man’s profession because it takes a long time to become an expert. When Pray started her career at age 26 in the 1980s, she said no one took her seriously.
"At the time, you didn't know if it was because of your youth or because you’re a woman," she said. "For me, it was obviously a combination of both. The first five to six years of my career I was always the only woman in the room. Even today, I'll go to a board meeting and there are very few women on the board and, if there are, they're non-vocal members. It’s still the good ole boys."
Pray is hopeful the difficulties she faced being taken seriously are changing. "The younger generation of men coming up have had strong women and mothers as role models. They're more attuned to working with females," she said.
This article is part of our five-part series about women leaders in construction for Women in Construction week 2018. Read the others here.
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