Behind the Build: Interview with Dr. Giovanna Brasfield, Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion, Flatiron

Dr. Giovanna Brasfield, Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion, Flatiron

Anyone who works in construction knows we’ve certainly made significant strides towards being more inclusive and diverse, but there’s still a long way to go.

Fortunately, we have individuals like Dr. Giovanna Brasfield (“Dr. G”) who are helping to lead the charge. As the Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) at Flatiron Construction, Dr. G runs several initiatives to promote D&I both at Flatiron and the construction industry in general. She looks after initiatives that attract and retain the right people within the organization while ensuring that Flatiron maintains a strong company culture.

Dr. G has accomplished numerous meaningful initiatives and goals throughout her career, and everything started with her doing one simple thing: raising her hand.

We caught up with her and asked her to share her story, along with thoughts on how the construction industry can continue to promote diversity and inclusion.

How did you get started in the construction industry?

My journey in the construction industry started simply by raising my hand. I volunteered to participate in learning how to assist certified firms. At the time, I worked with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the SBDC obtained a grant under the Los Angeles network. I was consulting with them on another project, and I had the opportunity to work with two of the Small Business Development Centers.

I truly felt the passion and the support needed for certified firms. That’s what drove me to take a deeper dive into the important role of diversity and inclusion in the overall construction industry — not just with policies, but in obtaining actual results. 

Working at Flatiron enables me to help small businesses get connected to opportunities on larger infrastructure projects that are truly transforming our communities. We're also helping the workforce get engaged with not just a job, but careers that can change the communities that we build and thrive in. The bigger piece is youth engagement and looking at who is coming in to the construction industry’s future.

So, my journey started based on raising my hand, but throughout that journey, I’ve been driven by passion and successes of the people who are changing their lives based on their connection to our industry.

Tell us more about your role at Flatiron today.

I have the honor of supporting Flatiron within our communities. My career journey at the firm has been so impactful, not only internally but also at an external level.

It is known that employees are essential for the work that we do in building amazing infrastructure projects, so internally, we have many different initiatives that take on a strategic approach with inclusion. This involves attracting and retaining the right employees, making sure we're growing them internally, as well as looking after our business strategy and culture as an organization.

I support the Southwest division, but I also provide advisory support to other projects throughout the entire Flatiron organization.

The external component is when I’m serving as a liaison, working with owners, communities, certified firms, workforce teams, and youth engagement.

At Flatiron, we’ve been committed to D&I. We started the anti-bullying, no-tolerance policy in 2018, and we launched our Diversity Inclusion Growth Groups or DIGG in 2019.

In the early part of 2020, leaders across our organization took to a more strategic approach and focused on becoming a better Flatiron. That's when we reimagined our DIGG initiative to focus on four pillars of growth. We had the chance to brainstorm, expand, and have our employees lead the charge in partnering with leadership to develop a more inclusive organization.

What are you excited about in the coming year?

In 2021 and beyond, we're going to have a whole new initiative for internal and external diversity and inclusion. It’s beautifully supported by our executive leadership at Flatiron. We’re leading from the top and demonstrating our serious commitment to D&I.

Internally, our leaders are asking, ‘what can we do better and how?’ Right now, we’re developing, learning, training, and listening.

Last year, our CEO, started a town hall series where he listened to employee concerns and input on how to be a better organization. We had a mixed groups of geographic locations, position/career levels, generations, and ethnicities in our data collection process, and that’s when we started restructuring DIGG.

Currently, we have four strategic pillars and a group of employees dedicated to thinking about each pillar strategically. We have people of various backgrounds and differences coming together to collaborate on the importance of inclusion to our organization and better understand how it will assist us develop, as well as implement actions needed to ensure growth.

I’m also excited by how supportive our executive team on these initiatives. In addition to planning, we’ve conducted leadership training as well as unconscious bias training for our leaders.

What are some of the most important and actionable steps that firms and business leaders can take to improve diversity and inclusion?

First, just start. Diversity and inclusion is an intentional effort that needs to be a priority from the top. In making D&I a priority and communicating, organizations have to be willing to have those often difficult or uncomfortable conversations. Next, which is where we are at now – taking action. Most organizations industry to industry regardless, have a policy or statement, but often overlook the implementation of sustainable actions. There often needs to be a constant reminder to support the seriousness and importance of diversity and inclusion within the organization, which starts with organizational culture.

Listening has also been helpful to us, particularly in our town hall meetings, where we could listen to employees’ feedback and obtain input needed to develop long term strategic planning. In such, there has been an increase in communication at all levels about why D&I is essential to our overall organization.

Thinking back to when we started these town halls, our CEO decided not to take a specific structure. It was a very interesting time within our country and for Flatiron overall because we didn't know what would happen or what employees were going to say, but we were open enough to learn. We had people from different career levels, the LGBT+ community, different ethnicities, and various geographic areas -- we just listened.

Flatiron’s CEO did these town halls for several months. Then, each of the regions continued the initiative quarterly in Regional groups. They still have town hall meetings, though it is not only about the listening component anymore. They’ve also added some educational aspects.

Flatiron created an employee resource group and also on one of its joint venture projects. What was the motivation in creating this group, and how has it evolved?

With the challenges and injustices throughout our country, Flatiron reinforced its commitment to equity and inclusion. In our development, we restructured our business resource group, called DIGG, but also we launched a space so that our employees could participate and ensure this effort is more than words, but actions that generate results. The motivation was not a could do, or a nice to do, but a must do deeply rooted in a commitment to improve our company culture, business strategy, employee engagement and employee retention and growth.

On one of our projects, we’ve experienced a high level of success of partnering and collaborating with our joint venture partners to implement an employee resource group. Together, members of the Joint Venture team identified resources and professional development needs for more women across each of our organizations and within the overall construction industry. We thought strategically about how we could attract, retain, grow women in construction by implementing initiatives around professional development conversations. The project specific Women’s Leadership Network was created in response to this essential need. 

Every month, the leadership network takes on a different topic for professional growth of women. We have a leader that used to come in physically, and now virtually in our current reality, to discuss various topics, such as public speaking, confidence, negotiations, emotional intelligence, personal health, etc.

It's a great initiative that we have men taking part, as allies and sponsors, and that’s the beautiful part about this group. We’re able to educate our male counterparts on the overall needs of women in the industry and together with men and women that’s where real change happens.

More employees are remote today than ever and rely on technology to do their jobs. Do you think technology has the power to create a more inclusive and equitable construction industry?

In 2020, we had to change and pivot as an industry. We had to figure out how to conduct business in a virtual setting while still being inclusive of everyone's engagement. We needed to figure out what that looked like, how we should do it, and how we can make sure everyone's part of the conversation.

Now, we're relying more on technology, especially when it comes to keeping our projects and teams safe in a virtual platform. We’ve adjusted to the new tech and processes, and we’ve seen a consistent effort in how effective and efficient life can be.

We can meet in a virtual platform with businesses in multiple states all in the same day while still getting face-to-face interactions. Although I miss the personal interaction, our new reality has created a sense of time-efficiency, cost-effectiveness, innovation, and technologically-savviness as an industry, while lending to the discussion of a more inclusive and equitable platform within construction for diversity and inclusion amongst workforce, businesses and youth engagement. 

We have seen more ways to be inclusive because barriers have been reduced, or even in some cases removed by allowing more exposure to greater span of firms across the country by virtual communications. 

We've also seen an increase in engagement at all levels because now there is more access and visibility to the organization's senior managers and executives.

At Flatiron, senior managers and executives have more access to various parts of the country simultaneously, giving them more time to mentor our young professionals through technology and improvements and also have used virtual platforms to empower our entry-level and field engineers. We are finding it easier for us to increase engagement in trainings across the country, project construction progress, and within the Southwest Division our mentorship program.

What advice would you give the future generation of construction professionals?

From my own personal journey, I would advise future generations of construction professionals to take every single opportunity to listen, grow, and remember that every challenge is a lesson. One will never know where each challenge or difficulty situation will lead, so learn.

I think about some of the jobs that I've had to do in the past, even in the diversity and inclusion space, where I was challenged. I was willing to lead and take risks. I remember questioning my “why” with every single day and thinking about how difficult it was. But once I changed my perspective, I became open to receiving the knowledge, guidance, and support from industry experts and leaders within construction. That simple, yet critical mind shift was truly helpful in my career in such elevation to my current senior leadership role.

I believe that there's a holistic approach when it comes to one's career. Be willing to invest in you. It’s important to look ahead at your overall career potential and not just focus on your current role, but more so imagine where you would be by diversifying your thinking more big picture to understand how all responsibilities of a project focuses on ultimately meeting budget, minimizing risk, contract implementation, and project on time delivery. To this day, I'm still learning and raising my hand. Because as I understand more about our industry, I get to be a better representative of my company, and I’m more effective when working with owners and interacting with the community and not afraid, but empowered.

I would also tell future leaders to never let the light that shines from within dim. By opening myself up to opportunities in construction has been the best decision I’ve ever made.

Alyssa Jaber

Customer Marketing Manager, Autodesk Construction Solutions