Blazing a Trail to Diversity

McCarthy Project Director champions culture and construction for a better industry
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“It really suited my personality—being out there in the field, speaking with the workers, architects, engineers and then the owners. I was immersed in the build process. Seeing the work being put in place, I realized that was fascinating.” For McCarthy Project Director Ileana Holguin that fascination has served as fuel for a career in construction spanning over two decades, including 19 years at McCarthy Building Companies alone.

A native of Mexico, Ileana came to the U.S. at 17, and retook high school just to better her English. She found a love of drafting, drawing and sketching, and without anyone in her family or network to guide her to higher education, she went to community college before attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in hopes of becoming an architect. “I’m ambitious. Little did I know that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Architectural Engineering program wasn’t ‘architecture’; it was structural engineering, and I actually loved it. I also decided that I should minor in construction management to ensure better opportunities,” explains Holguin. Both her minor and major turned her on to working in the field, and she has served as a prime example of construction excellence and inspiration ever since. As project director and champion for the McCarthy Partnership for Women employee resource group in Southern California, Ileana’s work is never done. And that’s just the way she likes it.

Built Blog: How did you get started at McCarthy?

Holguin: I started as a project engineer 19 years ago and handled all the paperwork for anything that happened in the field, such as RFIs, submittals, daily logs, etc. It wasn’t until I was promoted to assistant project manager that I had other people who reported to me. At that point, I wasn’t just managing the work; I was also managing people and personalities.

Built Blog: How did you make your way to project director?

Holguin: I was the project manager for about five years, then my manager, whom I consider to be one of my mentors, suggested that I come into the office and do a couple of years of preconstruction. In preconstruction, I’ve learned the other side of the business, like preparing proposals and estimating, negotiating owner contracts, and business development. I’m a better project director because of it. As a project director, I manage the preconstruction and the construction of various projects. I have two to three at a time. It’s so exciting!

Built Blog: You’ve been in your profession for 20 years; how did you adjust to digital technology as being a productivity tool?

Holguin: We have a strong group of technology professionals who encourage us to use technology when and where it provides value. Having digital tools is crucial in our business to make us more productive. For example, many documents that I work with are PDFs, developed and put together in Bluebeam. Having the ability to share Bluebeam takeoffs with the team and being versatile both in the office and the field, enables us to improve productivity and deliver better results for team members and clients.

‘Managing people is probably 60% to 70% of what we do every day. We’re managing personalities. We’re motivating folks to do their best work every day.’

McCarthy Project Director Ileana Holguin

Built Blog: How do you see McCarthy working to empower women?

Holguin: McCarthy understands that diversity is really the best way to be a healthy company. The company created the McCarthy Partnership for Women to enhance the experience for women, not only to recruit new talent into our industry and company, but to make sure that we have created an environment with no barriers—where everyone is set up to be their best selves.

Built Blog: How is the McCarthy Partnership for Women group structured?

Holguin: This national group is executive-sponsored and employee driven. Each one of our regions have champions like me who communicate the goals of our group to our region. We also prepare and coordinate networking events, training and other programs for both the women and men in our region, where everyone is empowered to succeed.

Built Blog: What types of outreach does the group participate in?

Holguin: Last year, we had a very successful year regarding outreach. In Southern California, we implemented “Construction 101,” inviting high school girls to come and join us on a Saturday and learn about potential opportunities in construction industry. They moved from station to station where they experienced hands-on learning activities. For example these young women learned how to safely use power tools—and I’m not talking about a drill, I’m talking about cutting rebar with a saw. I cannot tell you how rewarding it was to show them that they can do something different that is not the norm or more traditional for women. They left feeling empowered to do anything they wanted to do in the future.

‘Diversity—and not only diversity of gender, but diversity of thought, diversity of background and diversity of experience—brings so much value to a firm.’

McCarthy Project Director Ileana Holguin

Built Blog: How else does the program facilitate relationships?

Holguin: We’re working to provide opportunities for women to come together and network with our company leadership on a more regular basis, to have one-on-one conversations and get to know each other better. When you have leadership participate in your events, it motivates the women to want to come and participate. Having the buy-in from our upper management empowers us as champions to be able to maximize our efforts.

Built Blog: What about mentors in your life or career? How do you think they have helped in leveling the playing field they got?

Holguin: I think mentors are of upmost importance. My unofficial mentor was another female project engineer who started at McCarthy around the same time I did. I was able to feel comfortable asking questions, because she was someone I could relate to, another female in construction. We were able to run ideas by each other and get advice on how to handle certain situations. Even though she wasn’t a formal mentor, she helped me to grow in the industry and make better decisions. Currently, I have a formal mentor who advises me with work-related items and I cannot tell you how valuable it has been to have him support me in my career.

Built Blog: You’re 20 years in, what are some big differences you see now in the industry that weren’t there when you started?

Holguin: Women project engineers who are joining McCarthy out of college are more vocal than ever, and I’m loving it. It’s refreshing to see that they’re feeling comfortable to be able to speak up and stand on their own two feet. What this means it that we are changing our culture in the construction industry, which is great to see.

Built Blog: Do you think this change is because of groups like McCarthy Partnership for Women?

Holguin: Absolutely. Through the group, we have developed a network of connections across the country. We’re able to speak freely about what we’re feeling, what we’re doing at work, sharing our stories. It’s about having each other’s backs. That, to me, has been the most rewarding part about working and championing McCarthy Partnership for Women here in Southern California. We are better together!