A Woman of Asphalt: Meet Ajax’s Jessica S. Kiesel
BY Sandy Lender
As we shared in the July 2021 edition, Ajax Paving Industries of Florida LLC can boast a number of Women of Asphalt (WofA) on its team. Among them is Project Manager Jessica S. Kiesel, who joined the asphalt industry in 2020 after working in the construction field since 2005.
“I ran the operations of a sitework and underground utility company as the vice president for the past eight years, and I am very excited to be a new member of the Ajax Paving team,” she said.
She entered construction in 2005 as a project manager and finds that role gratifying. “The project manager position is extremely dynamic. From creating the schedule to managing subcontractors, negotiating with clients, leading the project team and problem solving, there is never a dull moment or a day that goes as planned. You are consistently challenged, which is very rewarding.”
Kiesel was willing to share some of her career insights with readers.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers your career trajectory since high school and what challenges (or roadblocks) you’ve overcome along the way?
Jessica Kiesel: I was valedictorian of my high school and had the fortunate opportunity to attend Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering. With a minor in finance, I joined an investment bank as an analyst in their technology group after graduation. When I moved to Florida, I accepted a position as a project manager in construction. Over time, I was promoted to the vice president of the company. It is a challenge to be a woman in construction. For over 10 years, I did not deal with an owner, an executive or a project manager that was female.
Many men underestimated my abilities simply due to my gender. At first, this was frustrating; but it just requires a bit of time for them to realize your value.
The biggest challenge for me as a female is the social aspect to business. Many business relationships are built over social activities (dinner, drinks, golf, trips). Males in my position have multiple dinners a month with clients, vendors and associates. A fishing trip or hunting trip is generally a yearly event. As a woman, I do not get these opportunities to build relationships. Over the years, I have pushed hard to break through this divide. Unfortunately, I have not made as much headway as I would like; but it is my goal to continue to challenge the system to make it better for my daughter and the many women that are following behind me.
AsphaltPro: What part of your education relates best to the career track you’re on?
Jessica Kiesel: My senior engineering classes have been the most beneficial to my career track, but not for the reason many would think. It is not due to the content that was taught. It is the thought process that was taught. Almost all my exams were open book. One of my professors constantly reminded us that he did not need us to memorize the equations or data (we had books for that). He needed us to know where to find the information, how to interpret it, how to apply it, and how to solve the problem. That sequence of thinking is what has allowed for my success.
AsphaltPro: What is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position as a project manager in the asphalt industry? And how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone a similar skill?
Jessica Kiesel: The industry needs more women. There is an important balance for men and women in the workplace, and, unfortunately, the asphalt industry is still lacking in female numbers. There is a Mexican proverb that says, “Remember that a house does not exist on the ground, but it rests upon a woman.” Women have a special gift to create the atmosphere, to foster relationships, to build community, to guide ethics and values. Women play this vital role in their families and their homes. It is a huge asset to the business world, and to every company, to have women creating this foundation from within their structure.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about teamwork. What is the most challenging project you’ve been a part of and how did you and your crew overcome the challenge?
Jessica Kiesel: The most challenging projects are those with difficult people in authority positions, whether it is the owners, the owner’s representatives, or the inspectors. A strong team environment allows you to overcome these obstacles while keeping your sanity. The team offers colleagues to vent to when issues become heated, to use as a sounding board to refine your ideas, and to offer a variety of viewpoints to help solve problems. I have only had one project that was a challenge for the entire duration. However, the team that came out of that project was one of the best teams I have been a part of. The challenges brought us together and pushed our abilities to the next level.
AsphaltPro: It’s a fact that asphalt production can be hot and dusty. How do you respond to people who say it’s a “dirty job?”
Jessica Kiesel: That’s what makes it exciting! It is a dirty job. You are working outside with equipment and hot asphalt. It might not be for everyone, but I love being in the field.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt business?
Jessica Kiesel: Women can do everything that men can do in the asphalt business. Equipment operators, foremen, superintendents, plant operators, project managers, all these positions can be held by women as easily as they are held by men. I would like to tell women to take a risk and try something new. Yes, you may be the first female in that position at your company, but don’t let that stop you. These are exciting and rewarding jobs with a lot of room for advancement and excellent pay. We need to be brave and not pass up on opportunities simply due to gender norms.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt business?
Jessica Kiesel: We build the roads that keep the community safe and connected. If you take a minute to pause and picture your typical day without asphalt, without paved roads, it is quite alarming. Our lives are built around transportation and access to our jobs, families, everyday essentials, everything that is important to us. The reward is providing that access and safety to the public. The reward is sweetened by the company I am a part of. Ajax’s vision is to be the choice contractor, partner and employer. Not only are we providing an essential service, but we are building positive relationships and focusing on quality and value.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us of a person who served as a mentor for you?
Jessica Kiesel: Finding a mentor has been tough for me as a woman in a male dominated industry. Male superiors would offer business advice and technical knowledge if I asked, but I did not know any women in management positions that could mentor me along the way.
I found listening to podcasts and reading books by female business leaders to be a great source of motivation and advice. I keep a quote board in my office with post-it notes of thoughts or ideas that remind me of where I want to be and who I want to be.
Below are three quotes that relate to Women of Asphalt:
“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.” – Ginni Rometty (Executive Chairman, IBM)
“When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.” – Melinda Gates
“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure impact lasts in your absence.” – Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook)