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Wed May 12, 2021 - Midwest Edition #10
At 1 million sq. ft. and with a budget of $1.5 billion, the new Kansas City Airport is impressive enough, but add in a female construction workforce larger than most any in the United States and you've got a project in a league of its own.
"When Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate was selected as the developer of the new $1.5 billion Kansas City International airport, it promised the project would reach historic and transformative levels of diversity, spurring economic growth for minority and women-owned businesses in Kansas City," said Geoff Stricker, Edgemoor senior managing director. "We have delivered on that promise. The number of women in the project's construction workforce is three times the national average. The national average is 2.5 percent while the KCI project has around eight percent. Fifty-four Women-Owned Business Enterprises [WBEs] are making indelible contributions to the future transportation hub, leading scopes of work totaling nearly $175 million."
As the lead structural engineer with the project's lead design firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), Alexandra Thewis leads a team composed of 60 percent women architects and structural engineers. She has logged more than 15 years specializing in large-scale transportation projects, including work on the 1,000-ft. tall reinforced concrete skyscraper for New York's Hudson Yards. That project and the Kansas City airport are two of the largest projects she's been involved with.
Her job is an important one and comes with the burden of the need for absolute accuracy.
"I've gotten used to it as I've gotten more experience with these projects," Thewis said. "It's a big responsibility to be a structural engineer. If you make mistakes, really bad things can happen. We take our work seriously, and have numerous checks and balances to check everyone's work and make sure everyone is really comfortable with what is constructed."
It's not always easy being the minority in a male dominated field, so getting together with other women on the Kansas City project was a "breath of fresh air," she said.
"I feel like we are really good problem solvers and work together really well as a team."
She's also been challenged by the dated perceptions that, despite her qualifications, lead clients to ask for the "guy's opinion." Asserting her authority can sometimes be awkward.
"The guys executing the work really need to respect you," Thewis said. "You go up and say, ‘Hey dude, the rebar isn't right, you have to fix this.' It was very intimidating at first. I think I've developed a thicker skin maybe and I think just knowing myself better, knowing how competent I am, I can tell this guy, ‘I designed this. I need to make sure the job is executed properly.' Some guys are like, ‘Hey there is a woman coming through, don't make any jokes' or ‘Hey, watch your language around her.' They try to be nice about it, I guess. I don't want people to make special efforts … but some people just try to be chivalrous."
Fahteema Parrish and her company, Parrish and Sons Construction Co., also is playing a key role in the project. After several disappointments in failed entrepreneurial ventures, Parrish found success in establishing the 100-percent woman-owned contracting business specializing in land clearing, demolition, excavation, grading, storm utilities and hauling.
Parrish started on the Kansas City job site in April 2020. She bid on 478,000 sq. yds. of concrete and asphalt demolition and recycling.
"It was a huge undertaking," Parrish said. "Coming into this huge arena with all these large, more established, more supported contractors ... I think what Clark, Wietz, Clarkson [CWC] did, they were a lifeline. That lifeline was steadily accessible and I was able to call and ask the questions, knowing the only dumb question was the unasked question. I was able to get to know these individuals. It made it better, but it didn't mean they were going to allow me to do any less than anyone else."
Still, Parrish said the experience has been mixed, made easier by mentors like CWC, but also by her willingness to attempt to make lemonade when she was handed lemons.
"The guys in several meetings would question whether or not I really knew how to do the work. I can hop on a machine and knock down a pile, load myself ... so it was really me just showing, it was action instead of verbally responding."
Today, Parrish owns more than 20 pieces of equipment, which she said helps minimize costs. But even that came with challenges, particularly from the credit side of the equation.
"For me, when I first started, it was like, try and deny, try and deny," Parrish said. "I have good personal credit. If I am personally guaranteeing, why won't you give it to me? It's back to establishing that business credit. Foley Equipment was the first to give me a line of credit. Since, I've been able to get accounts through relationships with John Deere, Kansas City Bobcat …".
She also faced the challenge of growing her business in a healthy way.
"We started out like a mom and pop, me leading myself, me hauling," Parrish said. "It's the growing pains and so we had to perform, make a team. With a team you had to start cross training and developing operational procedures, delegate. In order to delegate you have to have a document someone can read from or they are going to come back to you. You have to have a legal team, a safety officer, an accounting team. You have to build that team of reliable, trustworthy people." CEG