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Women in Construction: Interview with Leslie Cook

Leslie Cook is a Senior Project Engineer at KBE-NY.  She has been in nearly every aspect of construction industry – from Construction Management and Business Management to Real Estate Development – in NYC and Miami FL.  She holds a B.B.A., in Business Management from Texas A&M University, a Professional Certificate in Project Management from Villanova University, a Six Sigma White Belt Certification, and several safety training and trade certificates.  Leslie is also an active member in several organizations such as The Architectural League of New York, Women in Housing Finance, and the USGBC.

Why did you choose a career in construction?
I didn’t know that I would end up in the construction industry.  My father is in construction and my uncle is a developer, so I was exposed to the industry early in life.  As a child, my father would put me in safety gear and a hardhat and we would visit his job sites.  I may have been a girly-girl, but my father could see that I was tough.  His advice to me if I wanted to pursue a career in construction was to work with the subs first…a framer, so that I would understand how a project was built from the ground-up.  He encouraged me and was proud of me once he realized I would succeed in a construction career.  I started at a design-build firm as a real estate developer in Florida that specialized in the Affordable Housing market.  I started at a Design/Build firm who acted as the General Contractor/Developer and Owner/Operator, specializing in the New York City and Miami, FL.

I started my career in the office working with people and business systems, but I knew that I wanted to be in the field and be part of building the project.  When I was in the office, people in the field would tell me “you don’t understand how it is in the field!”, so I decided that I wanted to know.  I wanted to interact with people in the field and see what they went through on a day-by-day basis.

I had heard about an open position at KBE-NY through a woman that I had gone to school with.  She had nothing but positive things to say about the firm and its leadership.  I realized that this position was my opportunity to work in a city that I lov, and for a firm that will let me bridge the gap between office operations and hands-on field work.

Any challenges you’ve faced in your career in construction?
I think people are faced with personal and professional challenges in any industry.  While I have never dealt with any unique challenges as a female in my current firm, I have encountered some obstacles in my career.  For example, a man that refused to shake my hand prior to the start of a construction project due to a myth that it would bring bad luck to the construction project.   Some men have felt uncomfortable – or apologized – for cursing in front of me.  While I appreciate the courtesy, I would rather be treated equally.  This is why I enjoy working for KBE-NY, the women here are treated on the same terms and with the same respect that men are.

What is the biggest change that you’ve seen in the construction industry?
Seeing more women in the industry is very exciting, and I enjoy communicating with them and learning about their challenges and successes.  We are the minority in this field and we have a strong support system that allows us to learn from one another.

What advice do you have for other women pursuing a career in this industry?
My advice to young women pursuing a career in construction is to get out to the job site – volunteer if needed, don’t wait to be asked and don’t expect to be in a high-profile position right away.  You will need to work hard, learn as much as you can.  Be confident and fearless.  This industry has so much potential for growth and there is a high demand for workers.  Being in the field will give you the hands-on experience you will need to climb to the top, to be taken seriously, and it’s a rewarding experience. 

Also, being in construction management doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a hammer in your hand, you can be involved with networking, marketing, accounting, there are so many opportunities, the possibilities are endless.

What resources have helped you out the most – a mentor, education, hands-on experience?
There have been several men in this industry that have helped me to succeed.  Many of them saw their daughters in me and wanted me to use my passion and ambition to succeed. Even presently, the leadership of our office has actively encouraged me to succeed, they’ve provided support and resources that enable me to connect to everyone in our industry.

What impact do you hope to leave on the industry?
As a mother of a young daughter, I believe it’s important to expose her to as many possible careers and fields as I can.  I want her to know that she can become anything and that I support her with her choices.  Right now, she loves DIY projects – building furniture and painting, she loves trucks, and she likes to play dress up by wearing a tool belt and heels!  I want her to explore as much as possible and encourage it – because she’s the next generation of workers.

Leslie’s daughter, the future of construction!

What is your favorite part of your career?
I love that I can meet so many people in the City – from contractors to developers and business developers.  I also find that I can have an impact on changing the NYC skyline, and that is inspiring. I want to one day walk through a neighborhood and say, “I built that building”.  I love being surrounded by so many creative people.  In the A/E/C industry you need to be able to creatively solve challenges and I find this aspect of construction to be truly inspiring.

How had KBE supported you as a woman in construction?
Work/life balance in this industry is easier than one might think.  In the field, the hours are typically 7-3 which frees up some of the afternoon.  Technology is always at my fingertips which allows me to get paperwork done at home, sometimes at 10 pm.   I believe this is supportive of women and it understands today’s family dynamic.  It’s evolving from an outdated mindset.  KBE-NY is very supportive of quality of life too, it’s important for us to work smarter and not harder.

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