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Women In Construction Week: 5 Questions With Morgan's Helena Finley

Morgan Vice President of Central Region Construction Helena Finley never has the same type of day. Some days she is in the field helping the team resolve problems. Other days she is in meetings discussing, planning and designing future projects.

She is responsible for all of Morgan's projects in Texas and Colorado. In the last 14 years, she has managed 23 major multifamily projects totaling close to 5,500 units valued at $578M. Projects include Pearl Midtown Residences and Whole Foods, the Pearl CityCentre projects, Gables Memorial Hills, Gables Park Plaza in Austin and Post 510 Richmond.

Finley said none of this would have been possible if her previous employer, a Houston-based construction company, did not intentionally focus on her skill set and previous experience as a leader, planner and budgeter and not her gender or her interest in the construction field. 

The women that worked on Morgan's Pearl Marketplace project, including subcontractors. Front row: Yaritza Cruz, Karen Prien, Eneida Evaristo, Shawndra Silas, Angelica Vallejo, Gabriela Mendiola, Lynne Marie Hash, Lilian Arely Serrano and Dalia Porcayo. Back row: Leah Kay Perez, Paulina Marvan, Peggy Lopez, Melissa Ocanas, Sharyn Pedersen, Helena Finley, Jacqueline Felix, Amanda Sterling, Joann Pyatt, Becky Cherry-Nunez and LIssette Rodriguez. Not pictured are Kelli Lathrop, Roz White, Starr DeRe

This is one more way construction hiring should be done to promote diversity and inclusion, she said.

Morgan's construction division has 30 employees, 12 of whom are women. Five of the 11 employees contributing to the Pearl Marketplace Midtown project are female. Nationally, the percentage of women in construction is smaller, Bisnow previously reported

As Women in Construction Week comes to a close, Finley spoke to Bisnow about her experiences as a woman in construction, how she got started in her career and what her ultimate career goal is.   

Bisnow: Why did you choose a career in construction? 

Finley: I started as an assistant project manager. I was not looking to get into construction. I was in education at the time, running a business school, and I applied to an ad that stated, "We need someone who can schedule." Well, I scheduled at the school. "We need someone who can budget, lead and manage others." I was like OK; I am doing all of these things. But, I had no clue it was for a construction role. I ended up getting into the role and absolutely loving the industry. Construction chose me.

The owner of that company wanted someone who would think outside the box. He was tired of hearing, "It's always been done this way." He wanted someone to come in at a leadership level, question everything, change things and look at things with fresh eyes. It was intentional to hire someone without [construction] experience.

Bisnow: What’s the biggest challenge of being a woman in construction?

Finley: There are some irritants that come up because you are a woman. I would not put them in the category of challenges because they are much more irritating. I attend a lot of meetings where I am the only woman in the room. I will present an idea, and the idea is washed over. Then, a male colleague presents the same idea and the whole room full of men get behind it. I think, "I just said that." It is really important not to let those little things get to you and focus on the end goal. There are more and more women in construction now and it has gotten easier than it used to be.

Morgan Vice President Helena Finley

Bisnow: What is your favorite part of your job?

Finley: I am very much a team person, so getting to the finish line as a team is the greatest reward. Having great communication, everyone working together and pulling the whole project together is tremendously satisfying. It takes a great team: a team of people who work for Morgan, but also the extension team, which includes the consultants, designers and all of the subcontractors.

Morgan gives back a lot to the Houston community. For the past two years, we have been working on a project called Halo House, which is 33 units for people coming to Houston for cancer treatment. It is a privilege to be a part of those type of projects, too.

Bisnow: What advice would you give someone starting out?

Finley: We get a lot of interns from the University of Houston construction management program. My advice to all of them is to spend as much time on the construction site as you can, ask tons of questions and get involved everywhere. We have had a lot of young women join us from that program, and I tell them the same — you need to spend time in the field with a superintendent. Help them, but also listen and learn from them.

Technology has come a long way in this industry, and it is happening quickly. It is really important that everyone not only come in with good technical skills but continue to learn. It is ever evolving and changing. You can never stop learning. We used to print site plans, but now everyone on the construction site has iPads. It is a different industry than it was three or five years ago.

Bisnow: What is your ultimate career goal?

Finley: This is where my career and personal goals merge. I came [from South Africa] to Houston 34 years ago on a swimming scholarship [to the University of Houston]. (She competed for the South African national swimming team and was an All-American collegiate swimmer.) I really want to give back to Houston. An aquatic center is the only sports stadium Houston is lacking. We have Simone Manuel, a gold medalist at the last Olympics, from Houston, and it is such a shame that we do not have an aquatic center here.

At the same time, we have a huge portion of the Houston population that doesn't know how to swim. That is very dangerous with so many bayous and detention ponds around and the Gulf of Mexico so close. An aquatic center is a unique sports stadium that is used by the regular population every day. It is not like the NRG or the Toyota Center. Whether it is used for swimming programs for kids and adults, or used to host major aquatic events like diving, water polo and swimming. My goal, working with a nonprofit, is to bring an aquatic center to Houston. If I could get the center built that would be the pinnacle of my career.