Alice Nguyen, VP At McCarthy, On Leadership And Inspiring New Careers In Construction

October 12, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.


With over 30 years of experience working in design and construction cost planning and management, Alice Nguyen, vice president of preconstruction at McCarthy, leverages her expertise and relationships to bring value to every project she oversees.

In this Q&A, Nguyen shares why she chose to pursue a career in construction and how she approaches leadership in a male-dominated field.

Alice Nguyen, VP of preconstruction at McCarthy, headshot
Alice Nguyen, VP of preconstruction at McCarthy

 

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a leader?

No, not really. I knew that I wanted to work with people who wanted to do their best and make a difference to the client, to the team and to the overall work culture. I’m naturally a planner and organizer, so combined with my problem-solving mindset, I was able to pursue leadership opportunities in the construction industry. 

Q: How did you get into construction? Why did you choose to enter the industry? What inspired you?

My uncle was a civil engineer who worked on large infrastructure projects (bridges, roads, etc.). I was inspired by his work and how large infrastructure work could make a major difference to developing countries around the world, so I started my studies with large civil projects as my focus.

Q: What issues did you see in the construction industry before you started?

It wasn’t very inclusive, and male-dominated with no females in leadership positions. I remember I did not see a single female recruiter on campus when I was looking for job opportunities during my senior year, and all my professors were male. We had a lecture series where industry professionals presented their “real life” projects and challenges, and again all the presenters were male.  

As a civil engineer, most of my projects are in remote locations. One time I was offered a job on a project building a road in a very desolate location. I would have been the only female on the project and the youngest member on the team. Having a support network–a group of people I could have connected with who might have been through similar circumstances–was not something discussed or even thought about at the time.  

Today, there are numerous networks available. At McCarthy we have an internal McCarthy Partnership for Women program, which is a national employee resource group providing opportunities, support and a network for all female employees. This executive-sponsored and employee-driven group offers female employees opportunities for personal and professional development, internal and external networking, and a platform for sharing goals and exploring solutions to enhance our experience and remove any barriers to our growth and success in the industry.

Q: What problems are you trying to solve as a leader in the construction industry?

One of the biggest challenges in the construction industry is attracting talent. Many high school students aren’t aware of the opportunities in construction. Many educational institutions are focused on developing talent for the tech industry, but many technical skills can be easily transferred to the construction industry. 

For instance, if you are very good at math, you could be a prime candidate for performing predictive risk analysis on a multiyear mega project. Or if you’re interested in data science, there are many ways to apply that to the construction industry to gather information on how project teams can improve processes and methods.

As a leader, I’m making it a priority to inspire and educate young men and women on career opportunities in construction. Through its Partnership for Women program, McCarthy has even developed “Construction 101 Day,” an event in the California region that introduces teen girls to the construction industry and teaches them skills they may not have explored otherwise. The event serves as a platform for participants to learn about the construction industry and explore potential career paths. 

Q: Did/do you feel welcomed and accepted as an underrepresented group in the construction space?

Yes, I do, especially in my hometown of the Bay Area. I feel fortunate to work for companies like McCarthy, that believe that diverse perspectives lead to better outcomes for all. As a result, McCarthy has a dynamic group of female leaders who continue to play a pivotal part in the company’s success—and in challenging the playbook for excellence for the construction industry at large.

Q: How did you network, find communities and make the connections you needed to succeed?

I’m an introvert, so for me one-on-one interactions are always more effective than large group settings. I connected with my peers on projects, both formally and informally, and over time as I continued to grow in my leadership role, I was able to grow those relationships. Accordingly, so did my peers—many of whom currently hold senior leadership positions in their organizations.

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your leadership style?

I value people and their ability to learn and develop. I believe that if someone is truly passionate about learning a new skill or capability, they will put the time in. My job as a leader is to find those opportunities for them to practice and offer the repetition my employees need to master new skills through coaching them with empathy and kindness.

Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned as you rose through the ranks in construction?

From my perspective, the industry is very competitive—who can be the biggest, the best, the most—and if we focus on being collaborative, we can achieve much more together.

Training our talent on soft skills is just as important as the hard, more tactile ones. Universities are very good at focusing on the technical aspects of construction, but planning and building a project is very complex—no two projects are the same. A single project could span multiple years, with hundreds and thousands of people working on that project during the design and construction phases. It’s the soft skills that will enable us to communicate effectively, motivate our teams and stay focused on successfully coordinating the delivery of the project.  

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success as a leader?

I attribute my success as a leader to being a good listener and being empathetic. I believe that if you truly listen to your peers and try to better understand the challenges your employees are facing you will be a more effective leader in helping guide the team to develop a solution. As a leader, I always try to put myself in my employees’ place and evaluate situations through their lens so I can better understand their thought process when determining how we can achieve success as a team. 

Q: Why did you choose to grow your career at McCarthy?

My values aligned with McCarthy’s mission and company principles to be genuine, always have a team mentality (we, not I) and to be all in on everything that we do. I truly believe if we show up each day and behave this way, we will be successful and have fun too.

Q: What is your advice for other women in construction at the beginning of their journeys?

Find a workplace that aligns with your values, whatever they may be. Your career may not always be perfect and there will always be conflicts and challenges, but if those values are shared by everyone at your company, you’ll have found an employer that truly makes you feel appreciated and accepted. 

Figure out what you love to do—what gets you in the “flow;” that state of total absorption in something that is so meaningful that you lose all sense of place and time—and before you know it, it’s time to go home (or go to bed)! Find a way to do that every day. As the saying goes “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a female leader in a male-dominated industry?

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a female leader is to figure out who you are, what you love doing and practice it every day so you can become “the best” at what you do. Then, use that passion and knowledge to train others to inspire them to learn how to succeed as well. That ability to train others, and grow talent which requires soft skills—communication, patience, empathy—are all important aspects of leadership.  

One of the main reasons women are grossly underrepresented in the construction industry is the lack of education of young women about what a career in today’s construction industry entails and the variety of opportunities for rewarding careers. This knowledge gap around how women can contribute to the construction profession leads to unconscious biases among both genders about women in construction. 

For example, many view a career in construction as a job for men or that it’s too difficult for women to be successful in a construction role, which simply are not true. I believe the only way to address this stigma is to understand these biases for both men and women, and to work together with others in the construction industry in the interest of both current and future generations. 

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

“I want to make a difference and not just be part of the process.”

Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

I was laid off after being at the same company for over 25 years. The company had just gone through a merger and my position was consolidated. The idea of returning to the job search after so long and trying to find a new place to grow my career was daunting, but luckily, I had maintained a strong network of industry contacts over the years. In less than a week after being let go, I had connected with a handful of contacts in my network and was able to secure several viable opportunities within only a month. I made the decision to join McCarthy Building Companies as it was the right fit for me.

Sometimes you must take a couple of steps backward to move forward. I held a VP position at my previous firm, but started as a director at McCarthy. I spent the first year listening and understanding how the group was organized and where the company’s needs were, and applied my capabilities to best fill those gaps. Working with my supervisor, I implemented changes that positioned us to win several major projects, trained many new hires, and when my supervisor retired two years later, I was recommended to fill his role as VP of preconstruction.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your experience in construction so far?

Starting my career in a company that lacked cultural diversity, I am grateful that my career at McCarthy has helped me not only grow professionally, but has also made me feel accepted and appreciated as a woman in construction. When I first started at McCarthy, I was invited to the annual shareholder’s event and sat next to a female project director who had been with McCarthy for 20 years. It was so refreshing to know that females had opportunities to hold leadership positions within this industry. 

Q: How has your experience as a leader in the construction industry impacted those around you (i.e. friends, your community, family)?

As a leader in the construction industry, I’ve helped influence several younger family members and friends to consider a career in construction—including several cousins and family friends.  I also served as a board member of my son’s school and helped them develop and expand the campus with the addition of several beautiful classrooms.