Born in Colombia and raised in Atlanta, Pilar Gonzalez is an assistant project manager with Sciame Construction in New York City. She received a B.A. in architecture in 2005 from Georgia Institute of Technology and worked with architectural firm Stanley Beaman & Sears in Atlanta. She spent 2009 through 2011 in North Carolina learning blacksmithing and metalworking before enrolling in New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate in New York City. She graduated from NYU Schack in 2012 with an M.A. in construction management and currently works on a landmarked residential building in Manhattan where she’s bringing her blacksmithing and architecture background to her work as construction project manager.

 

Architecture to blacksmith to construction manager isn’t a common career path, but does it follow what you had in mind when you were young?

I always wanted to be an architect. I loved architecture but I’m not sure where that love came from. It’s what I had my heart set on. I went to school to learn and I practiced architecture for a few years but I felt I wanted to be involved more in the arts and the artistic side of architecture. That’s when I segued into blacksmithing.

It meant moving away from building and working on a smaller scale but still having the challenge of working with an interesting space. And I got to use my hands. But when I went into blacksmithing I realized I missed buildings so I came back to construction management.

It’s been a bit circular and I never envisioned that blacksmithing would be part of it. I didn’t even know what blacksmithing was when I was young.

So the blacksmithing detour was after your graduation from Georgia Tech?

It was. It was after I had been in architecture for about five years. I had been moving away from the design side of architecture into the project management side. Learning blacksmithing in a way was my getting back to the hands-on part and to design.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Colombia and my family moved to the United States when I was five years old. We settled in a suburb of Atlanta. I stayed in Atlanta and went to Georgia Tech. After graduating I worked for an architecture firm in Atlanta. From there I went to North Carolina to do blacksmithing in a little town on top of a mountain.

How does that happen? Are there help wanted signs for blacksmiths?

No. Really I was trying to find a school that could teach me welding. I didn’t want a traditional arts program and not a technical program. I didn’t want to do commercial welding or sculptural welding. I just Googled and looked at a lot of small arts and crafts programs. I found Penland, N.C., and the Penland School of Crafts. It has an amazing iron studio and you can sign up for three-month courses.

That’s where I learned blacksmithing. It was a very hands-on program, very intensive.  And I loved it so much I stayed there for two years.

What did your parents think when you said you’d be doing blacksmithing?

They thought I was crazy. But they know me well and know I have a tendency to do crazy things. So it was no surprise to them. And they thought so again when after two years I said, “OK, I’m packing up and going to grad school for construction in New York City.

Along the way, who was your support group?

I had support at every stop really. I had mentors in architecture and blacksmithing and construction management, particularly as I earned my graduate degree and worked closely with NYU Schack professors. They also thought I was a bit crazy, I think, but they also all pushed me to pursue what I wanted and to explore and expand my thinking. I think they saw the value of gathering all these facets of information.

Did you see a clear path ahead for yourself or did you ever wonder just what it was you wanted?

Yes, I asked myself that often. I like to learn; I want to know all aspects of building design and construction. I’m constantly trying to find new approaches to learning it, and that’s not always linear. It prevents me from knowing what the endgame is, I suppose, and the more knowledge I absorb, the more that endgame shifts position.

I’ve felt like I was moving backward to move forward sometimes.

How much of a leap of faith did it seem to go from rural North Carolina to New York University in Manhattan?

It felt natural. After living in the mountains in a small town for two years, going to a city felt natural. New York was the right place to go next for what I wanted, which was to build significant buildings that would become iconic and to be part of a construction team that values design.

You’ve spoken of the appeal of the hands-on aspects of blacksmithing. How do you satisfy that drive now

Blacksmithing is a hobby now and I definitely take advantage of it when I can. I want to keep that creative passion alive. It’s a great stress reliever. When I’m stressed I go to the anvil with my hammer and make things.

Your landlord must love that! How many forges are there in New York City?

More than one would think. But unfortunately we haven’t had an opportunity to get ours up and running yet. But we hope to soon.

By “we” do you mean you and your husband, Jon Shearin?

Yes. He’s a sculptor and a blacksmith as well. I met him at Penland School in North Carolina [where he was an instructor]

How is he adjusting to the big city?

He’s doing pretty well for a Southern boy.

What skills have been the toughest for you to learn in becoming a project manager in construction?

The toughest skill, which I’m still learning, is negotiation. It’s something that as a woman I wasn’t brought up to do. And it’s not something that is taught as a part of an architectural curriculum. Until my negotiations course at Schack, it wasn’t something that I really studied to understand how to be effective at it. I’ll probably work at it the rest of my life but I think it will be a critical component to success in this industry.

Had you encountered instances where you felt your career progress was more difficult because you’re a woman?

Yes, but it has helped as much as it has hindered, I think. There are a lot of women pursuing nontraditional roles and I think many companies look for that. Companies value initiative and want to nurture and mentor that to increase the number of women in business. Construction is one of those industries where women are starting to move into high-level positions. That has helped.

It has hindered at those times when you’re dealing with men who don’t understand why women would be pursuing a career in construction.

Men who feel threatened by you?

Sure. There have been some old-school gentlemen who have approached me in that way. But once they see my capabilities, they’re usually more open.

If a young woman says she’d like to follow the career path you’ve had, what will you tell her that she should know?

The wonderful thing about the construction industry is that you can learn so many different things and apply them to the industry. There are a variety of routes to get here. It’s a matter of finding the route that interests you, which you’re passionate about. If what you like is architecture and design, or it’s carpentry or welding or structural engineering, focus on it. And then diversify your knowledge so you’re well-rounded.

So is the endgame as you imagine it now your opening Pilar Gonzalez Inc.? Would you like to have your own business?

I would love to have my own business or at the least to be running a major construction company. I see the end goal as me being a prominent person in the construction industry.

Do you see any reasons that can’t happen?

No. I really don’t. It’s just a matter of hard work and determination at this point.

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