Celebrating International Women’s Day 2021 at TVS

On this 110th International Women’s Day, we celebrate the incredible women all around us. We reflect on the women who inspire us every day, and as we look at how far our industry has come in creating an equitable experience for all, we’re inspired to continue rewriting the rules and challenge the status quo.

Meet Jessica Steele-Hardin, the TVS Director of Technology and Operations – a woman who in less than three short years has helped to equip the firm for the future and is redefining what leadership looks like within the AEC industry.

When did you join the TVS team? Tell us a little bit about your background.

I joined tvsdesign in 2018 as the Director of Technology and Operations. I have a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and Marketing from Mississippi State University, a Master’s in Architecture from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Master’s in Urban Design from Tongji University. That in itself is interesting – from Mississippi to Georgia to China and then somehow back to Georgia…

Now, to tell you a bit more about myself. Where do I start? I grew up when computers in schools shifted from a rarity to a normal occurrence. Math and Art were my favorite subjects. This confused people who subscribed to the Right Brain/Left Brain debate. However, there was always the inclination towards STEM, but that is not how I started my career. It was started managing others who are very different from myself. After obtaining my Bachelor’s, I was able to develop my soft skills (leadership, problem-solving, communication, flexibility) and some very handy hard skills (driving a tandem-axle truck, forklift operation) with Fortune 500 companies. I learned how to connect with people and the importance of that connection. I learned to trust the skillsets of people. I learned to fail and how to recover from those failures. This was a personal skill set that I never really engaged in prior to this time. There were a lot of struggles and frustrations. I was young in my career and had to develop these skills rather quickly.

Then, I decided I needed a career change. I was successful but did not feel fulfilled. This decision came with more struggles both personal and professional. So, I went back to school to pursue architecture. While back in school, I was always 10-15 years older than my classmates. The soft skills I picked up in my previous life were very useful. I found myself gravitating towards the technology around architecture.

After the completion of both of my Master’s, I started working within the AEC realm. I was able to work as part of a team on architectural projects and was also able to lead a few projects as well. As time went by, the technology side of the BIM process became my discipline. From there it graduated into expertise in information technology and BIM.

What is your role within TVS?

As the Director of Technology and Operations, I try to help TVS by responding to business challenges and business requests, managing services, governance and stability of our systems while transforming the organization with innovative digital/cloud platforms and services. To achieve this, it’s crucial to have an understanding of how all of the software used in the firm will perform on issued laptops and virtual machines, how platforms and software interact and integrate with each other, an understanding of the network and infrastructure configuration and growth, security needs and concerns, budgeting, as well as an understanding of how those I lead can grow and benefit the firm. There is a lot to do for TVS but I have a great team in my corner.

How is technology playing a part in TVS’s growth? What sets the firm apart from the competition?

TVS started its technology growth before I joined in 2018, deciding to move away from a traditional desktop experience to a mobile, laptop experience. I was able to improve and build upon this decision. Before the pandemic, I was helping TVS to improve infrastructure – which proved very valuable because TVS was able to transition to working remotely easier than many other architecture firms. This was the second time within 2-3 years that TVS grew because of technology. The changes in software and workflows were embraced to make remote work successful. TVS is thinking critically about how technology can continue to improve our existing operations. What do we do now that could be done better by automated processes, software or platforms? The successes that happen with our own ecosystem are used to better our designs and to help our clients.

What can we expect from TVS in 2021?

Improved processes and efficiency around communication and collaboration. TVS will improve our connection with each other and with our clients, which includes digital portals for our staff to communicate with each other and portals for our firm to communicate with our clients. This would allow for clear and concise transfers of data. These Digital portals will be created to easily communicate between tvs and its clients as well as between team members. 3D mapping and LiDAR will be used to improve and automate documentation of existing building conditions.

Are there any specific technology practices you have brought into the firm?

I think COVID-19 forced people to look at technology in a different way and raise questions like: Is this piece of tech helping to give a faster, better, more efficient output? Is the piece of tech easy for most to use? What are the limitations? TVS, like other firms, has been using communication platforms to better reach our clients. We are looking for a way to resolve the limitations. We are looking for ways to better access and sharing our own information and data. We’re starting inward with improvements so our clients can benefit with ease of use.

Tell us about your experience being a female leader in the firm and in the tech and architecture industry as a whole.

Both technology and architecture are male-dominated fields, still to this day. It’s always been frustrating to look around a room in a meeting and see that no one looks like you. There have been several occasions where I have been the only female and the only Black female. There are numerous stereotypes I have had to resist, ignore or correct – followed by the aftermath if I resist, ignore or correct the stereotype. I see strides being made to change this narrative, but the problems still exist.

I have noticed that we, as a society, gravitate towards leaders who are self-focused and self-centered, and the reality is that the likelihood of such individuals being able to turn a group of people into a high-performing team is low. I want to unlock other people’s potential and promote effective cooperation on my team. All of my leaders have mostly been men. However, I do have examples of bad leadership from men and women alike. I feel every day that there is a difference between women and men as leaders, whether in terms of salary or how they are treated by other coworkers. The best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential. That only happens when we have gender-equal leadership to enable and empower men to learn different leadership approaches from women as much as women have always been told to learn leadership approaches from men.

What are three tips for women in your field?

Oh…. This is really for any woman in any field. These three things apply to how you treat others and how you lead others.

  • Ego-strength and the ability to handle stress. This is how you handle things when life gets hard. This one is tough for me at times, especially because life, and the people you interact with can be so unpredictable. Being aware of my stress triggers is very useful because it allows me to recognize things that might make me feel anxious and prepare for myself in advance. This is also being able to admit when you are wrong and knowing your limitations.
  • Active Listening. There are a lot of different definitions for this. Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. It is an important first step to understanding a situation and seeking solutions to problems.
  • Empathy. Empathy is a trait that allows you to relate to the situations others are facing, and understand why they’re feeling the way they are.

I’m still working on all three of these and all three of these take getting to know not only yourself but the people you interact with. These three things were ingrained in me from my military mum. The double standards that are present in our culture can make some situations unbearable. I have been called emotional, angry, bossy, and have been presumed that I don’t know how to do my job – the list goes on. The three things above embody the opposite of what I’ve experienced frequently throughout my career. I’ve been talked over and ignored, only to have a male colleague say the same thing and be well-received by others. Like many women, I’ve had people not relate to how a situation may have caused me to feel uncomfortable and have let my emotions get the better of me in situations. I use all of these experiences to help me be a better leader. Those that I am leading, I want them to succeed. I want them to feel empowered. I want them to feel encouraged to learn from their mistakes. It takes honesty and constructive feedback. I want them to feel heard because I know what it’s like to not be.

The sad reality of any woman in leadership is that women leaders are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both. There are too many times when a woman has to take the “nice” approach to get a point understood or to accomplish a task. Currently, there are only about 7.5% of executives in fortune 500 companies who are women. That is about 40 women – only one of whom is Black.

Yet, I’m hopeful that the tide will turn as a more inclusive approach to leadership is embraced.

Read more about Jessica and how she’s transformed the TVS tech culture, here.