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By Erica Sweeney
July 3, 2017
Athena Chiera quite literally grew up on jobsites, but she never planned to go into the family construction business.
After graduating from Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, where she majored in government and legal studies with a leadership sequence, she, like many new college graduates, struggled to find her path, first considering a career in public policy and consultation.
However, Chiera knew she wanted control of her own destiny and was drawn to creating something concrete. Soon, following in her parents’ footsteps felt like a natural fit.
“I wanted to be able to do something important but still be able to provide for myself and to have valuable interactions with my coworkers,” says Chiera, now vice president of business development at Athena Engineering Inc., a multi-disciplinary construction company based in San Dimas, California.
“Tangible work is something that construction provides you that I don’t think many industries do. You know at the end of the day, you can look at a building and say, ‘I helped build that.’”
Jannie and Richard Chiera started the company in 1984, when Jannie was pregnant with Athena. They combined their business, management, and engineering backgrounds, and eventually named the company after their daughter.
Chiera says she spent her summers through high school working in the business. While her parents didn’t necessarily expect her to join the company, she says they made it clear that if she did, she would have to start at the bottom like everyone else.
“We will not be a fallback plan,” Chiera remembers her father telling her. “He said, ‘You have to choose us.’ It’s important, especially being in a family business, that people know you chose to work in the business. I knew I could really make a difference with steering the direction of the company and take the next step with it.”
Chiera knew she had to work harder than everyone else to earn trust and respect in the industry—but, her mom advised that being a woman in construction is 10 times harder, she says.
She officially joined Athena Engineering in 2006. Soon after, Chiera says her mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was at the height of the business’ growth, but she didn’t hesitate to step away to care for her mom.
“So my mom and I both left work, and we were out for a year,” Chiera remembers. “I think back on that a lot and if I had not made the decision to come into this business, I would have never been able to make that choice to take care of my family.”
Her mom recovered. When they returned to work, Chiera says, “the bottom fell out of the economy.”
“By the time I really started my career, it was at the height of the recession,” she says. “That was the beginning of the beginning of working with this industry.”
Chiera stepped into a sales role, and the rest is history.
“That was when I understood what surviving meant,” she says. “That's when I really understood what this industry means. I never realized that this is a career that I was always dreaming about because I love it.”
Athena Engineering is a woman- and minority-owned business, focusing on heating ventilation air conditioning systems, building automation systems, and turnkey general contractor services. The company is dedicated to supporting women and minorities in the industry.
“Being on the frontlines of sales is where I think I really started to understand how difficult it is for a woman in this industry, because we've always been a woman-owned business,” she says. “You fight every step of the way sometimes. My mom and dad said to rise above, and that’s how I started to make my way.”
Chiera, who is currently working on her Master of Business Administration, says what she loves most about her job is that there’s no typical day. She devotes her time to meeting with clients, doing outreach, and establishing overall company goals. She’s built valuable relationships with clients and helped the business grow.
Her legal and government background is also invaluable. Chiera recently revised the company’s master contract and sub-contract processes. Other aspects of contracts, laws, and regulations are also often at work in construction.
She says those in sales roles are sometimes incorrectly perceived to lack technical knowledge of the construction industry.
“I fight the stereotype,” she says. “I want women to be technical. So part of my mission has become—and, it’s because of my mom and the way the company is run—bringing women in. But, there are just as many men that are fighting just as hard for women to be in the industry.”
Women have made inroads in the construction and engineering industries over the past few decades, but remain a small segment. Among engineering graduates, women make up 20 percent, but 40 percent are estimated to either quit or never enter the field.
Mentoring and hiring women in leadership roles are often cited as ways to keep women engaged in the industry. Chiera agrees, but says sweeping policy and culture changes are also needed.
She is involved with many organizations promoting women and minorities in business, including the Southern California Minority Supplier Development Council, Girls Inc. of Orange County, and Women’s Business Enterprise Council-West, where she is Los Angeles-Orange County forum vice chair.
Chiera says she enjoys working with established women in business, but she realizes the power of mentoring young women and being the voice that tells them they can do anything.
In outreach to young women, she talks about her own path in the field and discusses the importance of education, but emphasizes that a four-year degree is not always required for a successful construction career. Too often, she says, construction is seen as one-dimensional.
“There are a lot of different types of hands that go into that one finished product,” she says, always explaining the industry’s myriad careers: sales, marketing, engineering, computer programming, software development, and more.
“All these different career options that everyone forgets—I think that has helped a lot of women that I mentored come into this industry.”
And, simply giving them a chance matters most. Giving someone a hand up, not a hand out is something that Chiera says her mother always instilled.
Changing public policies, such as the cost of health care and child care, could make a big difference in attracting and retaining women into construction, Chiera says. And, an industry-wide culture shift is needed to show women that they are valued, as are the choices they make.
Female leadership in the industry demonstrates whether a company values its female employees.
“The only way you’re going to change is by people like my mom who shifted the weight in order to make sure women had a home here, just as much as men,” she says. “It takes female leadership from the inside.”
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