“It’s pretty cool to think that a cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia could come out of this project that I’m involved in,” said Yelana Moton, an assistant superintendent at McCarthy Building Cos., of her current project, a 1.2 million-square-foot neuroscience research building on the Washington University School of Medicine campus in St. Louis.
One of the project goals is to foster better collaboration and innovation among all of the university’s researchers by bringing them together in the 11-story structure. Moton views the project’s purpose as inspiring and personal. “This project hits home for many of us, as everyone has a family member or someone close who has gone through this [Alzheimer’s or dementia]. This is not just a building but a project that could impact lives, which brings a greater purpose to the work,” she said.
In the family
The idea of going into construction started in Moton’s childhood. Her grandfather, with whom she was very close, owned a demolition business, and he used to tell stories about the industry, the connections he made with people and the opportunities he had. While driving around her hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois, he would point out the sites of buildings he demoed and where the bricks from particular buildings came from.
“Hearing the rich history and seeing the buildings excited me. I wanted to know more,” Moton said. By the end of elementary school, Moton was mimicking her grandfather in pointing out buildings. Buttresses to be exact.
Moton’s favorite subjects in school were math and science. “Anything in those realms caught my interest,” she said. Her school had a science fair in sixth grade. Moton was flipping through a library book to find ideas about what to present at the fair. She said, “I saw a building, and the book explained how structures are supported. You could make the project with a vegetable can and marbles, and it would resemble the buttresses on a cathedral-style building.”
Moton took the book home and showed her mom, who was skeptical. But Moton was all in. “Once I got the understanding of buttresses, we would drive around town, and I’d point them out to my family,” she said. “My father, who was also in HVAC and appreciated construction, and grandfather understood that my passion for construction was about to take off.”
Part of a team
Moton was always part of a team. It started with her close-knit family. The youngest of five children, Moton was a “super baby,” 12 years younger than her next oldest sibling. Moton’s oldest sister is 18 years her senior, and when strangers saw the two together, they assumed the sister was Moton’s mother. “My sister thought it was annoying, but I didn’t care. It was fun having older siblings—I was spoiled by all of them,” she said.
Moton describes herself as a “sports person,” and basketball is her passion. Her dad was a coach, and he spent lots of time with Moton shooting hoops and in the gym. Moton tried to convince her dad to pave their backyard so she could practice there. “He told me, ‘Learn how to dribble in the grass, and you’ll be a fantastic player.’”
She did and became a very successful player on her high school teams. When it was time to consider higher education, Moton visited some colleges, but realized she was burned out. “I wanted to pivot from basketball and focus more on my education,” she said.
While in college at Southern Illinois University, Moton majored in construction management, which solidified her interest in the industry. She was one of just two women enrolled in the program at the time. It was also where she joined her next team—the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) is a subgroup of the AGC.
While in college, Moton was invited to social events via the CLC, which had industry members. “It was exciting to be in a room full of industry members and to feel like I belonged,” she said. It also enabled Moton to network and gain three internships while she was in college. The CLC also awards scholarships to college students, and Moton was a recipient.
These positive experiences led Moton to continue being an active member of the CLC as a chair. “It helped me, and I want to help like I was helped,” Moton said. She also supports the St. Louis chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). And she’s grateful for the connections she’s developed through the McCarthy Partnership for Women, a national employee resource group that provides personal and professional development opportunities to help women excel within the company.
Moton continues to get a kick out of construction. “I like to see the land coming alive, seeing things being built and watching structures coming from the ground up.”
Moton also thinks about the people behind the project—the skilled labor that brings a project to life. She enjoys working with others to accomplish large projects and does so repeatedly in her role. She is regularly in the field managing crews, coordinating tasks and mitigating issues. Moton encourages women to get involved in the industry. She said, “If women are interested in science and math, but not interested in the traditional route, construction gets you close to a project, can be lucrative, is wide open and offers many different avenues. Plus, you get to come together and build something awesome.” Moton suggests that young women can find success in the industry by being confident in their abilities, finding their voice and recognizing their skills are crucial for team success.