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When it comes to women in the construction industry, they’re more often found in roles involving interior design and marketing. One less traditional role where women are becoming noticeable is that of project manager, which is playing out in smaller enterprises, specifically family-owned businesses, situations that often came about due to circumstances rather than a mapped-out career path.
For the last seven years, Jaclyn Pett has been project manager and lead designer at Langley-based Heirloom Projects, a renovation and new-build company that she co-owns with her husband, Jacob. Before that, Pett ran a wedding planning business while her husband worked in construction doing framing and foundation work. The couple renovated their homes on weekends and evenings, which they later sold.
“I got sick and tired of working every weekend and every late night to do those two things,” Pett recollects. “We had two children in that timeframe. It just got to be a little too much for all of us. I was no longer fulfilled doing the weddings; it wasn’t my long-term plan anyway. My husband was not loving the gruelling side of construction work. So, we decided that we would just take a leap of faith and go and see if, in fact, we could be successful in the construction industry on our own.”
Having just completed a renovation on their home, they decided to use it as their marketing tool and start their construction business. The pair’s combined skill set—Pett’s organizational abilities and elevated design esthetic and Jacob’s on-the-job experience and carpentry skills—brought a unique offering beyond a builder-basic approach to the local building industry. Recognizing one another’s strengths naturally led to how the business would be organized, with Pett taking on project management while her husband took care of the construction work.
“He’s not an office guy. I, on the other hand, am the opposite,” she admits. “I am the lead designer for all of our projects. I have a lot of staff that help, of course, now, but I am the lead designer, and I overlook everything to make sure that it checks all the boxes. I do all of the project management with my team.”
For Chandni Khera of Rajj Khera Properties, becoming the project manager for her family’s seven-home development in Sullivan Heights in Surrey was a role that arose out of necessity. Although she and her husband Suraj had been involved in the planning of the development, partly because one of the houses would eventually become theirs, transcending to working full-time on the project came as a result of her father-in-law Rajj’s health scare while she was on leave from work after just giving birth to her second child.
“He had heart surgery in between that time I had my newborn,” Khera recalls. “So, he was in the hospital for three months.”
With the contractor in place, and the project set to go, someone needed to step in and oversee the development. As Khera’s husband was already busy running the family’s other businesses, it seemed a natural fit for her to step up, and it was a challenge that she welcomed.
“It was an opportunity that just evolved, and I was already looking for something else to do,” she explains. “This is a great opportunity. Why not? And I had the support at home (from her mother-in-law) to be able to look after my newborn. I jumped into this role, and I’m so grateful that it happened the way it happened.”
Though she still needed to gain practical experience in construction, Khera says her management experience working at Safeway and having Punjabi as a second language set her up for success. That and having a contractor, Anksuh Sharma, with whom she worked closely, was also key, and whom she credits for helping her learn the business.
Pett admits that any new business venture presents a learning curve, but “taking (on) a fully male-saturated industry” like construction adds another dimension.
“Now I laugh about it,” she says. “There were many times in the beginning that I would get frustrated by certain things. It’s unfortunate, but there were many times I could just tell by body language or actual language that people weren’t taking me seriously or didn’t even believe what I said. Or didn’t take it for truth as they would have if it had come out of my husband’s mouth.”
Khera’s experience was similar, admitting that more than the lack of a construction background, the initial challenge was being in a male-dominated industry.
“Coming in as a young female was definitely an eye-opening experience for many individuals,” she recalls. “I walked in, and a lot of them didn’t take me seriously.”
As much as both women anticipated that there would be challenges embarking on a new career with little or no industry experience in one still seemingly male-dominated, what they didn’t expect was how much enjoyment they would derive from the work.
“I didn’t expect to love it,” Khera admits. “I think just seeing the end result was very surprising. Just to see what you can envision and make it happen.”
She adds that it’s gratifying to build relationships with people who support local businesses that do high-quality work.
Over the last seven years, Pett’s workload hasn’t lessened at all. In fact, it’s increased. A little more than two years ago, Pett and her husband expanded the business to include a retail division with the opening of The Heirloom Home Shop that stocks furniture and accessories, which she says is a natural extension of the sourcing of items and materials they do for clients. Unlike her previous work as a wedding planner, it doesn’t have the same negative effect on her or the family. As it’s their own business, they can create a better work/life balance, especially with the support of their employees, she says.
“I don’t think I expected to love it quite like this,” Pett observes. “My husband makes fun of me all the time because I don’t have hobbies, and he’s not wrong. But it’s because I genuinely feel like all of my jobs that I fulfill are my hobbies. I’m so personally fulfilled through my professional and personal life. Being a mother and being a business owner, I don’t need to learn how to play volleyball.”
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