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Construction Specifications Institute Celebrates Women’s History Month—Jori B. Smith

By Peter Kray posted 03-29-2022 04:09 PM

  
The term “soft skills” that women are often known for doesn’t mean they can’t also be confident and assertive. In fact, people with relationship-building acumen are sought out more and more in the architecture, engineering, construction, and owner (AECO) industry. In the case of Jori Smith, CSI, CDT®, and secretary of the CSI Board, those skills have served her well in her own remarkable career. One of the trailblazers CSI is celebrating during Women’s History Month, Smith not only is a success story in her own right but also an outspoken advocate for women in the industry.

Her following interview is the fourth of five stories CSI is sharing throughout March about notable women in the build community. The 2022 Women's History theme, “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope,” is both a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.

Please share some of the professional achievements and special projects that have the most significance to you. 

I’m incredibly grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve had to help build our community. From small non-profit healthcare clinics to major university research facilities, I’m proud of my contributions at all levels. My experience leading the University of New Mexico’s Physics Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Sciences project beautifully capped 20 years of general contracting and laid the groundwork for my current project as an owner-agent construction manager on the $400 million expansion of Netflix Studios in Albuquerque.

Leadership of projects at these levels is proof of how far women in this industry have come, and I am very much aware how my volunteer roles in CSI have contributed to my professional growth. By allowing me to practice leadership skills and gaining acceptance of others as a leader in a non-competitive environment, CSI gave me the confidence I needed to stretch for new opportunities.

What first intrigued you about a career in the AECO industry, and how does it continue to both challenge and reward you?

Architecture captured my interest because of the melding of the creative and technological realms. I actually have minimal drawing talent. But as all architects eventually discover, the practice is so much more than pretty drawings. My stronger skills are actually in administration/management, and when life’s road took me down another path, it turned out that construction management suited me well.  Now having added the “owner” role to my experience, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of strong communication in the project delivery process. The challenges of a campus-wide project with multiple buildings really drives home how critical it is to communicate with precision, using a rigorous and disciplined structure. Thankfully, I find it interesting and rewarding to work daily on ways to improve our messaging and documentation with varied team members. 

Who are some of the other women in the industry who have mentored or inspired you?

I’m thrilled to see women construction project managers becoming more common, but 20 years ago there weren’t that many. In my company, there were two of us who received that opportunity about the same time. As peers growing up together and finding our way, Tiffany Bradley and I supported each other. I am still in contact with her years later after we’ve gone our separate ways, and I’m still inspired by her successes.

In CSI, I’ve been so motivated by Lee Orosco, who overflows with energy and drive, and Joy Davis, who’s confidence and fearless communication style have consistently been an example to me.

What advice might you share with women just beginning their careers—or that you wish you could have given yourself?

My personal experience has taught me that men outpace women in the workplace partly because they act with confidence. They ask for the promotion, and they ask for the raise. Women need to make sure they pursue stretch opportunities, and demand recognition for their hard work. Do we have to act like men? No. But we do need to learn from their strategies and find supporters who are interested in helping remove obstacles in our path. I might never have received the first PM assignment I requested, if not for my supervisor standing at my side, voicing his confidence in my skills and ability to take on that role.

I recommend this book to every young woman I work with: “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” by Gail Collins. My generation has lived through a radical transformation, and I truly believe that younger women benefit from understanding the context of history and how recently it has changed our career opportunities.

Are there specific opportunities—or roadblocks—you see for other women in the industry now?

As a result of my current role, I’ve learned that there are huge opportunities in construction management, offering excellent pay and responsibilities near the top of the flowchart. The field is also more forgiving of missing field experience, which is frequently an issue for many women in the construction industry. Our company actually employs a significant majority of female project managers, and I’ve learned it’s not been an intentional part of their hiring—but seems to rather be an outgrowth of their preferences for specifically beneficial soft skills.

This is one of the ways I’ve always suspected that being female was actually helping me. I deeply care about and invest time/effort in incubating supportive relationships amongst the team members. And I truly believe that my clients have appreciated the benefits of the female mind.

What—if any—of these opportunities or roadblocks do you feel are specific to contractors in our industry?

One specific opportunity in the construction industry specifically is the long-standing minority ownership preferences that have allowed women to establish acceptance in C-suite roles for the last 30 years. I’ve been very happy overall with the general acceptance of team members throughout my career; however, there is still a frequent lack of respect for female leaders below the surface. I believe it will gradually die out, as each younger generation brings along their greater preference for equality. 

Until then, women still need to be better prepared than their peers, we need to leap at opportunities to work out in the field, and we need to fight back when we are “forgotten” from those site meeting invites. When it’s messy, muddy, hot, and cold, that’s when we have to demand to be included. Climb the two-story ladder to the roof. Jump over the utility ditch. (NO high heels!)

The 2022 theme for Women’s History Month is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” How can—or do—CSI members do exactly that right now? 

CSI needs to always strive to be a safe environment for asking questions and seeking guidance, without judgment. We have a wonderfully supportive association that is based on helping each other in our professional journeys. While I am comfortable discussing the challenges of women working in this industry specifically, CSI needs to welcome and encourage all of the diversity in our association and industry. The critical need is that our members consistently recognize and embrace the many ways we are different, with all the benefits those differences bring to the work.

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Great article on a wonderful active member. Best to your new role, Jori.