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Pushing Dirt Like Her Mother Did: From Nigerian Daughter to “Construction Jane”

Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

Depending on how you look at it, Jane Olaewela’s journey to becoming “Construction Jane” started when she was six years old in Nigeria … or when she was on a Greyhound bus from Boston to New York, twenty years old and frustrated with her education.

One of Jane’s most vivid memories from her childhood was of a mother who wasn’t afraid to push dirt. Her mom, Stella, had no experience in construction. She was a high school teacher. But that did not stop her from taking charge and assigning herself the role of project manager for the construction of the family home.

Little Jane watched with awe as her mother hired architects and tradesmen, approved plans, and supervised the creation of a home that her family would live in … all from nothing.

“It blew my mind that buildings didn’t always exist!” she remembers of this formative experience. Not only that, but she was too young to realize some people find it strange to see a woman pushing dirt.

“She’s a superwoman to me. She can do anything,” Jane said of her schoolteacher mother. “No one told me it was unusual to be a woman in construction, because she normalized it for me.”

On a Greyhound Bus to New York

Flash forward. Jane’s family relocated to the United States when she was ten. Jane’s fascination with construction found unity with an artistic streak. She spent hours designing her “dream home” using Microsoft Paint.

If you want to build things, you become an engineer, right? When it came time to attend college, Jane became one of the few young women to pursue an engineering degree. Only one in five engineering students are women, and Jane was one of them.

But she wasn’t happy. Engineering turned out to be far more practical and analytical than her creative mind had expected it to be. When she boarded that Greyhound bus to New York, she was deep in the throes of academic frustration, suspecting that on the most important decision of her life, she had made the wrong choice.

Her seatmate on the bus happened to be an extroverted man with the gift of gab. He chatted her up, asked about her background, her studies, and her career aspirations. Jane reciprocated the interest and asked him what he did for a living.

“I’m an estimator,” he replied. His description of his role on construction sites, collaborating with project managers and superintendents to create buildings from nothing, took Jane all the way back to six years of age, watching her mother bring a house into being.

Pushing Into the Business

Jane knew she had found her calling … but she had her work cut out for her. In an industry that prizes experience above all else, she had no experience, no connections, and the wrong degree.

“I made a series of decisions that made it a lot harder for me,” Jane reflects.

Nevertheless, after six months, over 200 applications, and a nationwide search, she landed a job with a general contractor in Cleveland, OH. Jane leveraged that experience into a job with Shawmut Design & Construction, a major builder with offices nationwide — first back in Boston, then eventually settling down in Los Angeles.

Having risen to the role of Assistant Estimator (the same career track as her Greyhound seatmate), she participates in the construction of a dizzying variety of properties. Private and public school facilities, healthcare facilities, corporate interiors and tenant fit-outs, luxury residential, retail and hospitality, sports arenas … if there’s dirt to be pushed, Jane has helped push it.

Her favorite projects, though, are the nonprofits, like Boston-based Community Servants. Jane helped the nonprofit, which brings medically appropriate meals to homebound patients, to expand their facilities.

“There’s something to love about every project, but there’s something extra special about working for that kind of nonprofit.”

A Rising Star

Jane hasn’t rested on her laurels, either. At Shawmut she spearheaded CMSC — Construction Management Skills Training. This three-year rotational program gives Shawmut employees the chance to cycle through the roles of estimator, superintendent, and project manager, empowering them with a deeper understanding of their industry.

She also advocates for environmentally friendly construction methods using sustainable materials.

She gets giddy when talking about the potential for manufactured lumber made from pulverized bamboo — a material just as strong as its counterparts, and far more sustainable to cultivate and harvest.

Jane is also a cheerleader for “hemp-crete,” a substitute for concrete made from hemp and sand — just as strong as cement concrete, but far better for the environment.

But her aspirations don’t stop there. One day, Jane wants to return to West Africa and contribute her construction expertise to improving the infrastructure of her ancestral land.

Leading the Way

Pushing dirt may come naturally to her, but she understands that many women and girls may not know how to get started. After all, she was in their shoes at the start of her own journey — no connections, no experience, no working knowledge of the industry she wanted to enter.

“I didn’t have any of that,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the industry, and I didn’t know how to know more about it.”

That’s how “Construction Jane” came into being — a role model to help young people, especially girls, pave a smoother road into the construction industry than she did.

She recommends focusing on networking — something she failed to do early on. Moreover, her recommendations aren’t rocket science.

“Probably one of the best ways to do it would be to join a professional woman’s institution,” she said, “especially one based around real estate and construction.”

There’s the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) … the National Association of Black Women in Construction (NABWIC) … Professional Women in Construction (PWIC) … Even as students, women and girls can go to meetings, meet the women doing these jobs, ask their questions, and make connections.

Jane keeps a list of these organizations in the link in her Instagram bio at @constructionjane.

While a college education may help a little, Jane recommends getting your hands dirty early. “What they prize above all else is experience. You just gotta be in it.”