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An Interview With: Karen Sweeney

Washington, D.C.
An Interview With: Karen Sweeney

An Interview With: Karen Sweeney

By Mary Westbrook, for Bisnow on Business

You can imagine the late-night conversations Karen Sweeney’s parents must have had about her when, as a little girl, she preferred watching the workers build an addition on the family home to other childhood games.

The love affair with buildings and the people who create them has proved life long: Today Sweeney is a vice president and general manager of Turner Construction, overseeing operations and business development for the firm’s 50-person Maryland office. She’s been with the company since graduating from Penn State (’80) with a degree in architectural engineering.

Now the mother of two—including a 20-year-old daughter studying engineering at Penn State—Sweeney recently talked to Mary Westbrook for Bisnow on Business about getting girls to love math, the personal connections buildings incite, and eating in the company lunchroom.

Bisnow on Business: May we assume there weren’t many women around you when you began?
There wasn’t a woman to look up to when I started, but I never really thought about it. My parents never said, “You can’t do this because you’re a girl.” And, when I went to Turner, I never perceived any bias.

Are there many more women now?
It’s 29% percent women, and I think that number is growing. We’re conscious about seeking out women, and the younger generation is better at asking for what they want. They’re more apt to say, “I know I can do this.”

What’s the barrier for even more?
I’m not sure there is one. If you can capture women at a younger age—before middle school—you can help them to take on math and science, and unlock the possibilities of what they can do. Women are very well suited for construction. They pick up on nuances and tend to be good at multi-tasking.

Did you have to push math on your own daughter or was it second nature to her?
No, we had to push. In seventh grade, I remember she started saying, “I don’t want to do it.” It drove my husband, who is an engineer, crazy. But, she was home from college a couple weeks ago and said, “Mom, I actually like math.” I was like, “Oh, my God, call your father.”

What was the turning point?
At Penn State they’re trying to get more women into engineering and, when we were looking at schools with my daughter, they had a week long program where students could experience different kinds of engineering. On day three they had to figure out a way for a handicapped girl to get her tea from the kitchen to another part of the house. She called and said, “I didn’t know engineers solved problems like that.” She was all jazzed up and hooked.

Did a particular project have a similar inspirational effect on you at a young age?
In the early 80s in Pittsburgh I worked on a high-rise building, Oxford Center. I was doing line and grade – painting lines on the floor and scraping fireproofing off columns to find benchmarks. I progressed, but that’s where I started. To this day, when they show a shot of Pittsburgh during football games or movies, I see it and it is still my building. It always becomes your building. I don’t know anyone in this industry who doesn’t personalize it.

What about current projects?
One of our big projects right now is the Wisconsin Place Garage in Chevy Chase. We’re also building Silver Spring Gateway, a large residential project in an urban environment, and we just started a retirement community project in Rockville, Ingleside at King Farm. I play more of a general oversight role now. I don’t get out into the field much, maybe a couple times a month.

Is that a disappointment?
No. I like my role now. It’s not just about buildings anymore. I’m committed to building up the Maryland office. I hope to look back one day and say that everyone who wanted to be part of Turner Maryland’s growth had a great opportunity to help achieve that goal.

As opposed to?
Well, the Maryland office hasn’t always been very focused on sustainable growth in central Maryland. So now we’re really looking at the Baltimore Market and other areas in the DC Metro region of Maryland to grow our presence. Washington is so transient. I live in Howard County now, but when we lived in Sterling, Virginia, it wasn’t uncommon to have all your neighbors change before the neighborhood was built out. Whereas in Baltimore there’s more of a small-town feel. People there know each other.

You oversee multi-million dollar projects. Care to share a management trick?
I sit in the lunchroom with the staff during lunch and listen, just to keep my finger on the pulse.

Complete the sentence: I wish I'd known 10 years ago that...
I was going to keep my sanity, have a good career and great kids. You always wonder when you’re younger and hear all these things about working moms, the guilt, the pressure, the quality time for everything but yourself, if it will all be worth it. I don’t care how great your husband is, and my husband is great, but it always seems to come crushingly down on the woman.

How do you recharge?Yoga. I come out and feel like I had a full massage.