Meet A Woman of Asphalt: Valerie Echter
BY Sandy Lender
Valerie Echter’s influence on the asphalt industry could bring a sea change to human resources and workforce development. With a BS in civil engineering, she began her asphalt career with Jebro Inc. in 2002. Now she’s a freelance social media strategist and content creator for the asphalt, construction and engineering sectors. We’re honored to share her positive and inclusive outlook with the industry.
AsphaltPro: Could you share the story of your first in-person training/seminar where you were the only female in attendance and how that influenced your mindset for success?
Valerie Echter: There have been numerous occasions when I was the only female attending a meeting or training session. However, the very first in-person workshop I attended was in Valentine, Nebraska, two weeks into my asphalt career. I didn’t know what to expect walking into a room of 75 county highway superintendents, so you can imagine my surprise when everyone stopped listening to the presenter and turned around to look at me as I entered the room; it was certainly an eye-opening experience.
At that point, I knew I would have to be more outgoing than I felt comfortable with, so I learned how to ask questions. Throughout the years, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the stories and history of asphalt and paving; there’s so many wise and knowledgeable individuals within the industry. I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in my professional life, due to that authentic desire to learn and hear people’s stories.
AsphaltPro: How would you advise a young woman who finds herself the only female on a crew?
Valerie Echter: My advice would be to stay true to yourself, while being confident in your abilities. It’s important to know your value and be willing to share your voice as part of the team. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Not one person in this industry knows everything, so don’t let your ego stand in the way of learning.
AsphaltPro: Could you share your career trajectory to show the audience the track you took to get to your current consulting business?
Valerie Echter: I spent 12 years selling liquid asphalt to heavy highway contractors in the upper Midwest, Texas, Rocky Mountain Region and Pacific Northwest. As much as I enjoyed the contractors I worked with, I felt pulled to investigate the world of coaching. I got certified as a holistic health coach in 2012 and shortly thereafter started coaching executive-level professionals on stress management, emotional intelligence and growth mindset strategies. I quickly realized that I was able to attract coaching clients by having a strong social media presence. I enjoy the creativity that social media allows.
One day, a coaching client complained about needing help with social media, so I offered to take it off his plate. Referrals started piling up and I quickly found myself working more in the social media world than coaching. I’ve been able to grow my social media work by offering a unique perspective and authentic voice to the construction and paving communities. I currently offer social media, blog writing and other content creation services.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position in the asphalt industry?
Valerie Echter: There are a couple skills that I’ve been able to harness that have allowed me to achieve great success in many areas of life. The first skill is my ability to listen. Construction is full of individuals more than willing to share their opinion. I spent a majority of my time in the industry listening and watching others, particularly leaders. I learned how to operate as a leader, how to gain trust from others, and more importantly, how to be respected within the industry.
The second skill is being empathetic. Empathy is rarely addressed or discussed in construction. Being a female, I can get away with asking someone how they are feeling or lend an ear to a co-worker who needs to vent. I have a unique ability to understand emotions behind people’s voices—allowing me to ultimately put myself in their shoes. In doing that, I can often see many sides of each situation.
My advice for women entering the industry would be to use empathy to your advantage. Be a sounding board for others in the industry who need to vent; however, also do your part to instigate change within those individuals and within the industry.
AsphaltPro: Within the companies where you’ve worked over the years, about what percentage of the “boots on the ground” have been female? And have you seen that percentage rising or staying the same during your career?
Valerie Echter: Without knowing the true numbers, I’d have to say 10 percent or less on the actual project. There are more women on the estimating or project management side vs in the field. For any project I was on, it was predominately men who were driving trucks, on the back of a screed, on a roller, or at the hot plant. I do feel that number is increasing, as women are seeing the opportunities for advancement within the construction sector.
AsphaltPro: What is the most challenging project you’ve been a part of and how did you (and your team) overcome the challenge?
Valerie Echter: For most of my career, I was responsible for developing new territories or building relationships to support asphalt sales in specific regions of the United States. When you enter a new market, it’s an eloquent “dance” of getting to know potential new contractor clients, while also keeping an ear to the ground and understanding competitors.
I was able to navigate those intricacies rather well, by focusing on relationship management first and foremost, and allowing sales to come naturally by just listening to clients and helping to solve their asphalt supply problems. My teammates were imperative for this success, as they always made sure my clients had the best liquid asphalt products, delivered on time and at the right temperature to every project.
AsphaltPro: Do you have an example of a sharable situation where a colleague or co-worker experienced a positive mental health outcome from a health & safety initiative you encouraged or implemented?
Valerie Echter: No, I don’t. That response speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I feel the construction and paving sectors have a huge opportunity to make tremendous improvement in regard to the mental health of our employees. Improving the mental health of our teammates will have a direct impact on the safety of our employees as well. I’m currently working on a pilot project that takes a completely different approach to current mental health resources and information. This approach is leading edge and requires participation on all levels of an organization. The results we’ll see from this initiative will reshape the entire industry. I do have room for a couple more companies to get involved in the program.
AsphaltPro: How can companies can get more information to participate?
Valerie Echter: The best way to learn more about the pilot project would be to reach out to me on LinkedIn.
AsphaltPro: Do you have an example of a sharable health & safety initiative you have been a part of that encourages the company to incorporate mental health as part of employee well-being?
Valerie Echter: I do a lot of public speaking on the topic of mental health, not just in the paving or construction sector, but many other business sectors as well. I know how debilitating mental illness can be; I suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks while at the height of my career in the asphalt industry. I suffered in silence because I didn’t want to be seen as “weak.” That was such a wrong way of going about mental health; I know that now. I should have spoken up, so that’s exactly what I do. I use my voice to share my story, and the story of many other paving leaders who are also struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
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?
Valerie Echter: An incorrect perception of our industry would be that young women can’t succeed. If anything, I feel women have a better chance than most men to be noticed and given opportunities—because we do stick out. I used my gender difference to gain authority and respect within the industry at a very young age. Being a young female leader in a male dominated industry means you’ll have a ton of exposure, therefore a lot of opportunity to show your abilities as a leader.
AsphaltPro: Who is a person who encouraged you—or served in a mentorship role—when you joined the asphalt world? Would you like to share a story about that person or how he/she influenced you?
Valerie Echer: Corky Baily was the president of Jebro when I was hired right out of college in 2002. He was incredibly intimidating; a large-statured man with a deep and loud voice. I used to try to look as busy as possible when he came walking out of his office so that he wouldn’t speak to me. Throughout the years though, he’d give me small hints that I was on the right track. I could sense he respected individuals who were leaders, so I always worked diligently to be a leader in my own unique way.
One day he took me to lunch, and throughout the conversation he made a comment that stuck with me to this day. He said, “Valerie, you are unique in the fact that you truly care about others. You understand people. For that very reason, people will confide in you and tell you far more than they’ll tell anyone else. They’ll trust you and respect you, as long as you nurture that relationship.” Although I didn’t quite understand why that message was important then, I do now, and I’ve seen his words come true on numerous occasions throughout my career.
Construction and paving isn’t just about building roads, it’s about people. The people in this industry are incredibly intelligent, resourceful, and kind. We may have amazing equipment and phenomenal technology within the world of paving; however, our people will always be our greatest assets.