Utopia Hill: From project engineer to director of project management

This article is in support of National Women in Construction Week, March 5 – 11, 2017. For more information, visit nawic.org. Be sure to catch all five BW features of different women shaping the industry! 

As an engineer first, Utopia Hill wasn’t always in construction. When she did enter the industry over a decade ago, unique hurdles stood in her way. Now, Hill oversees and obtains wind and solar energy construction projects at Invenergy.  For this National Women in Construction Week feature, Hill shares her story in how she went from aerospace engineering to the Director of Project Management, Construction and Procurement at an international renewable energy company.

What path did you take to get you to where you are today?

I was always a very inquisitive child. I was the kid taking apart the electronics at home — the toaster, the VCR — to try and figure out how to make it work, how I thought it would be better, and not always with success. I think that was kind of my early desire to work in engineering. So I went to college [and earned] a degree in aerospace engineering. I worked in the power industry, and with Invenergy being in my hometown, Chicago, when an opportunity presented itself about 12 years ago, I came to interview and have been here ever since.

How has the environment changed since you first started at Invenergy?

There has been a tremendous growth and acceptance from the general public because early on in my career when I was talking about renewables or construction for wind projects, in particular, most people didn’t have a very good understanding of what that was or what that meant and now people say, “Oh you mean the windmills when I’m on the highway or when I’m on I-80?” Or they’re used to seeing solar panels on rooftops of various stores. So it’s much more of an acceptance and an appreciation than I would say 10 to 12 years ago.

Photo credit: Kris Hanusiak

What have you really enjoyed about working in this industry and being director of construction projects for renewable energy?

I would say working with Invenergy, one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the people. When you’re working in renewables, you kind of have a greater sense of purpose, and you have this feeling that what you’re doing is to help a greater good. When you’re surrounded by people that share that sentiment, they know that it may be a few sleepless nights or countless hours that you’re working on something or traveling back and forth to get a job done, but the ultimate goal is something that can help not only yourself but those around you. So I think that’s the trophy that I have internally every time I work on a project and see it go from start to finish, or I work with my team and we all just feel that sense of success that we did something else to help the environment and help the world.

Have there been any particular projects that you’ve felt extremely lucky to have worked on and been a part of?

Oh, wow — there are quite a few projects that have been various stepping stones. When I started with Invenergy, I started as a project engineer, and I worked on a wind project in Iowa. We were working with outside clients, and, at a very early age, I was surrounded by so many knowledgable people, and they would ask the tough questions, but it forced me to learn as much as possible to be able to answer those questions. I think that helped me become noticed. And it also helped me grow to the point where I am today.

My most recent project is in a very remote area of Nevada, and, traveling out to the job site, you see how many jobs you’re bringing to that area, how many businesses are being supported in that area, and just the appreciation of the people in such a remote community saying, “I’m happy that you’re here. I’m happy that you’re bringing this opportunity to my town.” It’s felt really great.

“Early on, it was certain assumptions of what was my role, why was I there, and it was almost a shock for some people like, ‘Oh, she’s the actual project engineer.’”

What about challenges — what has been one of the most challenging parts of your job?

I don’t deal with this as much now, but there are still circumstances where it’s foreign for someone to see a woman, especially a woman of color, in my role in construction. Early on, it was certain assumptions of what was my role, why was I there, and it was almost a shock for some people like, “Oh, she’s the actual project engineer,” and then later on, “Oh, she’s the actual project manager,” or the director of project management. Encountering those hurdles at times was a large challenge because you often had to work more so to get people to accept who you are so they could listen to your ideas and start to work with you as a team member. You know it’s, one, making them comfortable with your presence, because some people aren’t comfortable with it, and then, secondly, proving your knowledge so they can finally embrace you and say, “Oh this is someone who knows what they’re talking about.” And it’s more so with outside parties. Internally, we know each other, but when you’re dealing with outside parties, and they don’t know you, it’s, it’s … after a while it gets better.

What are some things that you have yet to accomplish but want to in the future?

My passion for renewables isn’t just from a work standpoint. I carry it into my person life, as well. A large need that I see is especially in developing countries or even here in the US in low income areas. Being able to assist others with their energy needs is something, for me, that’s a long-term goal. We’re starting to work on development projects in different areas, but that’s something that I’d like to do — bring clean renewable resources to those who don’t have that now. Or, for people here in the States where a large part of their income is spent on energy needs, making it more affordable with renewable resources.

What do you feel could be done to get more women to join the industry?

“I think we should make ourselves more visible, but not only that, the employers in the industry as well, make sure women are front and center in the company.”

I think a lot of it is things I’m doing right now with you. It’s talking about my experience and people who are in the industry, putting themselves out there a little bit more because when I was younger I didn’t see people that looked like me or other women in the industry. Or if I were to see various construction sites, I didn’t see women. For some people, it’s not something they think women do. I think we should make ourselves more visible, but not only that, the employers in the industry as well, make sure women are front and center in the company. Also, if there are different opportunities for advancement, look at all employees. Some people have various assumptions on who should be in certain roles. And if there’s a woman who’s the best candidate for that role, make sure she’s in that role, but definitely make sure she’s visible. When you have recruiting events, send women to those events. I think when people see people that look like them and they can ask questions and get honest answers of “how did you deal with various circumstances” or “how did you overcome people’s perceptions being in an industry where you’re not the majority,” I think it will make people feel comfortable on taking that leap.

Do you feel like Invenergy does a good job of doing just that?

Yeah — a few years ago Invenergy started the Invenergy Women’s Network, and I think that was definitely a huge, huge plus for the company. Now we have women going to recruiting events and various social organizations throughout the Chicagoland area. Some of us do outreach personally with various nonprofits in different schools. We’ll go in for like career day so that the younger generations, and even the kids at the university, can see that whether you’re interested in engineering, construction, finance, law, these are people that you may not have assumed would be in this industry, but here they are, and you can do the same thing if that’s what you choose.

 

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