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Concrete Credentials: Why Perspective Matters in Concrete

Concrete Credentials, a podcast hosted by NRMCA Executive Vice President Gregg Lewis, AIA, LEED AP. It features experts from the design, development, construction, and other industries who understand the many benefits of using concrete. Whether it’s concrete’s strength, durability and resilience, its aesthetic quality, its unrivaled sustainability and performance benefits, its ease of use, or cost-effectiveness– the pros agree: concrete is the material of choice for buildings, paving, and infrastructure.

In this episode, Gregg Lewis speaks with Jennifer Mitchell, Senior Manager for Design + Build at LinkedIn. Jennifer received her BS in Environmental Science from San Jose State University and a masters of Environmental Science in Sustainable Development and Policy from the University of Illinois Springfield. After growing up in the construction industry, Jennifer worked for 5 years with NRMCA member company, Central Concrete, and then moved on to work on construction herself. Currently, Jennifer is heading up the construction of LinkedIn’s new headquarters in Mountain View, California. In this episode, Gregg and Jennifer discuss perspectives in the concrete industry and concrete sustainability.

Gregg Lewis:
Hello and welcome everyone to today’s episode of Concrete Credentials. I’m Gregg Lewis, Executive Vice President with The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. And I’m thrilled to have Jennifer Mitchell joining us today. Ms. Mitchell holds a BS in Environmental Studies from San Jose State University and a Master’s in Environmental Science degree in Sustainable Development and Policy from the University of Illinois, Springfield. She worked for five years with NRMCA member company, Central Concrete Supply in Santa Clara County, California, before moving into the world of construction. Ms. Mitchell is currently LinkedIn’s senior manager for design and build. She grew up in the concrete industry and has a perspective on building that I think is refreshing and forward-thinking, I won’t go into a great deal of detail here on her bio, because I would rather have her introduce herself. Jenny, welcome to Concrete Credentials.

Jennifer Mitchell:
Thank you Gregg, thank you for having me on your show. Pretty exciting topic so happy to be here and looking forward to this conversation.

Gregg Lewis:
Awesome. Obviously I’ve had a chance to hear you present before, you came out to Connecticut and spoke at the event that we planned at Yale earlier this year, back in January, but for our audience today, would you mind taking a couple of additional minutes and just running through your background and experience in a little more detail for them?

Jennifer Mitchell:
Well, I grew up in the concrete industry. Our family had a business in the small town that I grew up in here in California, Morgan Hill, even ready in a mixer truck, going to work with my dad. And instead of him driving me to school, he drove me in the truck with the driver who was on their way to a job site and I would get dropped off at high school right in front of the school in a mixer truck. So embarrassing at the time but I look back now and I think those are actually pretty good memories. Yeah, so as I grew up and things change and a little bit older and the concrete business no longer exists today, it’s now condos, but still a lot of great memories. And obviously something in that stayed with me and I’m here today talking about concrete.

Gregg Lewis:
It’s a great trajectory, I think, as I look at your LinkedIn profile and how your career has evolved since you got out of school, I mentioned Central Concrete at the top, but between Central Concrete and where you are today, you spent a fair number of years actually in the construction arena. Can you talk a little bit about the effort to go from working for the concrete company specifically to being in the construction trade?

Jennifer Mitchell:
Yeah, certainly. I would have to say it probably starts with my time at Central Concrete really. So fast forward from Jenny as a kid working, or not working, but being at the family business and later attending college, and then I was working full time for Central and alongside my dad again, which was great and he was highly influential in teaching me a lot of things. But I found myself at that time very interested in more of the technical design aspects of the industry and of concrete. I spent time in the lab, became NRC certified at that time and really invested a lot of my time and the design of concrete mixes.

So I really started to see that there was more to the world of concrete and concrete industry than just the dirty dusty plant that was my childhood memory and that there really was very interesting technical aspect. At that time, working at Central, sustainability was just beginning to enter the conversations within the industry, but it put me on a mission. And I personally invested in doing the research, learning from experts and academia from UC Berkeley and others. And at the time, I was a college student, I was studying to get my business degree at San Jose State. But part of that process, I was taking a class, which was a year long requirement within the environmental studies program, and that class and that professor changed everything.

So I began to overlay what I was learning at school with what I was seeing in the construction industry and my day to day work, designing concrete mixes. I ended up changing my major to environmental studies and then obviously went on later to earn a master’s in that same discipline. So who could have predicted that today concrete would be the hot topic and the biggest discussion as an opportunity to be the sustainable solution in the built environment?

But to answer your question, Gregg, after leaving Central Concrete, and I spent many years and it was fantastic, I learned so much, but I also had an interest to go beyond just one facet of construction and learn a little bit more about the industry. So I went on to work for a GC and did that for a few years and then moved on to being a client rep for construction projects. And then finally, where I am now, which I now am in the role of client overseeing the construction projects here at LinkedIn, our headquarters campus in Sunnyvale. And I’ve been able to continue to apply what I learned at Central all along the way in each role.

But I have really been able to have the most fun, I think, with concrete recently with the build of our new headquarters campus here at LinkedIn. We’ve had such a great team. Central Concrete where I used to work is our concrete manufacturer and they’ve been an integral part to what we’re doing. And our general contractor, architects, engineers have all been very committed to the project and support our goals to make concrete design really the next level of sustainability in our projects. And we’re not done yet. We’re still talking and thinking about how we take concrete to the next level of driving sustainability in our built environment here at LinkedIn.

Gregg Lewis:
I love hearing that explanation of your career trajectory and I think one of the things, Jenny, that I find really interesting is how you’ve gone through each of these sort of different areas of the design and construction industry, whether it’s trying to get specifications and mix designs to an engineering review, or being out on a job site or ultimately being in the owner’s seat on these projects, you’ve come all the way through that circuit. And it’s obviously informed, I think, a lot of your thinking, and we’ll get a chance I hope to talk about each of those roles maybe in a little bit more detail.

But before we do that, what I was hoping you might be willing to do is to answer a question about your role in the industry or several of these industries. Concrete and construction, as you know, those industries have tried to find ways to make their industries more attractive and accessible for women. And even in 2020, right, even today, your experience or experiences in these different fields, it’s still relatively rare. I’m curious what you would suggest to young women who are looking at opportunities in these industries in terms of advice for how they should be thinking about it.

Jennifer Mitchell:
That’s great, Gregg, that’s a great question. Thank you for asking it. We’re talking about trying to take something to the next level, right? So we’re trying to break out of things that we’ve always done, business as usual. And I think in order to achieve that type of innovation, you really need diversity, diversity of thought, different perspectives. And I think women being slightly underrepresented in the construction industry, the industry is missing out on a really important perspective. When you think about all the different ways that we all approach different situations or different problems based on our backgrounds and our experience, we all bring something different to the table and women and any minority and any group that has not been represented or at the table for construction projects, the construction industry is missing out on all of that perspective.

“So I encourage women to get involved in any industry where women are underrepresented because they bring a perspective that just hasn’t been there yet and could improve and will improve whatever that industry is trying to achieve. That’s just my personal belief. It’s diversity of thought, really, that takes us to the next level. And if we haven’t had that diversity of thought over a period of time, it’s very likely we’re going to continue to be in a business as usual circle and not get us to the next level. We really need to be looking at different perspectives and different experiences that people have had in their lives and having them bring that to the table.”

For the construction industry in particular, again, I think back to that dirty, dusty concrete plant, and that was not appealing to me, but there is so much more to concrete. There’s so much more to the construction industry science. Science is so fascinating and as I’ve gone through this experience with the last few years at LinkedIn bringing concrete innovation to what we’re doing on our projects, I’ve had to explain concrete to those that I work with and others on our team and talk about the science, and realize, wow the science here is actually very cool. It’s not just this dusty, dirty place, but there actually is a lot of science that goes into it. There’s a lot of engineering, there’s a lot of math and we think of the built environment and we we think about construction and structural and civil engineering, but I think that the direction we’re headed now, we’re combining both the physical and the biological worlds of science.

So we have two disciplines here that really need to mesh and come together. And it’s people who have an interest in those different sciences and who are the experts in those industries that will come together to find that next level of solutions, I think, for concrete and for the construction industry to really take us to that next level of sustainability. So there’s lots of opportunity in what we’re trying to accomplish if we could just get rid of the dirty construction industry stigma and really showcase to everyone to the world and to our young people coming out of college and to women about all the opportunities there are within this industry to bring their expertise, bring their background, bring their thoughts to the table and be part of the solution, be part of developing what this becomes.

“It’s not just about business as usual in structural and civil engineering and construction the way that we’ve thought about it and the way that we’ve executed for the last 1500 or more years, the future I think for the concrete and construction industries is a much more sustainable one, and that requires a collaborative approach with our biological sciences to really understand how what we’re doing impacts the environment.”

So I would love to see kind of the blinders taken off and the stigma released to really encourage people to get into this industry because there are so many opportunities, there’s so many smart people and we need them, we need their perspective, we need women, we need everybody to jump in and help us develop the right solutions and take our industry to the next level over the next 50 to a hundred plus years.

Gregg Lewis:
The enthusiasm and the energy that you brought to that specific answer, I find truly powerful. And I’m assuming that people who may be listening to this, if they’re not convinced that there are opportunities there that they ought to look at, then I don’t think anything’s going to convince them. So I appreciate the way that you answered that. I wanted to ask you, and you’ve mentioned LinkedIn a couple of times, of course, that’s where you are today, but I’m wondering, Jenny, can you tell us how you made that transition between the construction work that you were doing prior to and how that led you to your current role at LinkedIn?

Jennifer Mitchell:
Sure. Yeah. So after working for Central, I then went to work for a general contractor, again, working on construction projects in Silicon Valley and did that for several years and got to experience the tenant improvement world and understanding workplace and from a general contractor’s perspective what’s important in that role and what’s important to general contractors and how they look at and approach projects, business as usual versus change, new ideas as well the challenges that they have. And going from Central Concrete and having a really good understanding of the challenges as a manufacturer and then going to work for general contractor, and then kind of seeing it from a different perspective and seeing that responsible party for constructability of a project, that gave me just another perspective that I think was very enriching.

After that, I went on to take up my client rep role and was representing actually Cisco here in Silicon Valley and worked on products there, both kind of improvement, as well as some heavier construction projects. And again, then learned about projects and the construction industry here in Silicon Valley and from another perspective, as a representative of the client and assisting the owner in getting what they need out of the project and what they were looking for. So again, kind of a different perspective on kind of the same types of projects and the same industry.

After Cisco, I went to LinkedIn to kind of do the same thing now working for LinkedIn as a LinkedIn employee and now in the owner role, looking again then from another slightly different perspective from before of now feeling a sense of ownership for the project and passionate about that in a different way. And I think for me, it was really exciting to feel empowered to be able to bring all the people together that I had worked with over the last several years to the table and have some empathy for their perspective and the things that they were going through and the challenges that face them on what I was trying to achieve.

And really, just having the opportunity in the owner role to understand that there are some really cool things out there that we can bring here to our project, to our headquarters project, and really take it to the next level and being able to say to the industry, “This is what’s best for LinkedIn, this is what’s best for our project and these are your directions. This is what we want to accomplish, these are our goals,” and then empowering the team to go help us execute on those.

So slightly different perspective from where I started at Central on the receiving end of the manufacturer trying to design concrete mixes when trying to take concrete and sustainability to the next level but having barriers in front of me because I was not the owner, I was not the decision maker, I was having to influence and convince people what was best for their project and what was best for the environment was something else than what they saw.

So now I think that’s definitely the exciting part is that now I am in the owner role and really can help bring that to the project because my interest is doing what’s best for LinkedIn and what’s best for our new headquarters campus and what’s best for the company and from the perspective of sustainability and now can help bring all those people to the table and understand their challenges and help them solve for them and keep us all moving down the path and in the direction that really took us to a whole new level of innovation and brings a team to a place where we’re going to do things that just have not yet been done.

Gregg Lewis:
Absolutely. I enjoy hearing you talk about it because it’s clear that you’ve taken your experience in these different roles right up, including what you’re doing today, and brought all of that together in I think a really successful effort to drive the change and the innovation that you see as being so vital, the way that we build things. And in your current role, you’re able to advocate, I think, more effectively, probably it sounds like it, and it seems logical, than you were in any of your previous roles. And so at LinkedIn in particular to me at least one of the interesting developments there, and you and I have discussed this in the past, is how LinkedIn specifically began looking at its own leadership role in shaping sustainable construction practices. And there’s a story there as it relates to Microsoft and some other things that you’ve shared and I had the opportunity to come out to Sunnyvale for a meeting there, but I’m curious about how you would describe those developments and how the work that you’re doing today really is one of driving the message and change from a leadership position.

Jennifer Mitchell:
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. We’re not a construction company, right? We have campuses all over the world, but we’re not going to build thousands of buildings. We’re going to build a few buildings and they’re going to be the most sustainable and the most innovative and then we’re going to show the world how we did that with the hope that others will grab onto some of these concepts and some of this innovation and will adopt it in their own projects. We just want to show how it’s possible that we can do some of these things. And no matter where you are in the world, owners can use the local resources the same way we’ve used our local resources and experts to develop what works for them and take their own local innovation to the next level.

So we have focused a lot on bringing experts in locally, those local experts, bringing them to the table, giving them, “Hey, this is our problem that we need to solve for, these are our goals and how can you help us get there?” And using this collaborative model as kind of the mechanism for getting us to that next innovative level.

And specifically how it relates to concrete, over the last few years, that’s what we’ve done. Our headquarters campus is one project in Sunnyvale where we’ve taken concrete technology and innovation that our local experts could provide and we’ve implemented that in our project. As we move forward with the balance of our headquarters campus here in Sunnyvale Mountain View, we will take the technologies and innovation that our local experts can provide for us and we’ll bring that into our projects and that will be our next step in innovation and we’ll continue to rely on that expertise to continue to be innovative and take us to the next level.

And our hope is that we can kind of show the world how we did it locally here in Sunnyvale, and how we did it with concrete and hopefully that motivates and inspires other owners, contractors, architects, and concrete manufacturers around the world to do the same thing, to use that kind of same collaborative model to rely on their local experts to help them drive their projects. As we have talked about, Microsoft on LinkedIn has some pretty aggressive sustainability goals regarding zero carbon and concrete has an important role that it can play in that. And that’s really what we’re looking at as our next level of innovation here in Sunnyvale in our built environment is how the things that are being developed in the concrete industry are going to serve our projects and hopefully set an example of what is possible around the world.

Gregg Lewis:
That’s super exciting. I really enjoy hearing you lay that case out. And I guess that leads to my next question really actually pretty conveniently and that is, you mentioned these ideas and how they’re evolving, right, innovations are evolving rapidly, but I’m going to have to put you on the spot a little bit, Jenny, do you think we can achieve truly sustainable development using concrete?

Jennifer Mitchell:
Yes. Yeah, absolutely. There’s so many conversations just in the last few months and the more that… You and I have these conversations and others in the industry have been having this conversation since we started the concrete paths or LinkedIn a little less than a year ago, more and more conversations I’ve been involved in and have been able to talk to a lot of really just amazing people who are very passionate about the work that they do and the technologies that they’re developing, that I’m inspired and having some level of understanding from a technical perspective on concrete, having worked in that world, I feel really positive about the things that are being developed in the industry, that they will be solutions that we can utilize. And that really concrete essentially could be a very large mechanism to how the built environment achieves sustainability, at least from a net zero carbon perspective.

Gregg Lewis:
Yeah, of course I agree with that perspective, but it’s good to hear you sharing it from an owner’s perspective and in an innovative part of the country, an innovative part of the world and in an industry company that is constantly innovating. So it’s nice to see and hear a vision of the future from your perspective, somebody who’s worn lots of different hats over the years. We are coming up on our time, unfortunately, for this podcast and so I want to ask you a question that I’ve tried to ask all of our guests on Concrete Credentials and that is, if you were to leave our audience with just one key takeaway from our conversation today, Jenny, what would you like to leave our listeners with?

Jennifer Mitchell:
Hmm, that’s great. I love that. Thank you. I would say be open-minded, bring different perspectives together and then give room for opposing thoughts. This is really the key to making innovation a reality. We really need to consider all of the things that go into whatever we’re trying to accomplish and we really need to rely on a variety of experts and a variety of perspectives and opinions and we need to be open to be challenged. We need to be open to receiving different information and talking it through so that we really position ourselves out of that experience with the most tried and true solutions, it’s been vetted, we brought everyone to the table and we debated it through and the solutions and the technologies that came out of that effort can stand the test of time.

Specifically with concrete, when we build the concrete building, it’s there for a long time. So what goes into that design and what goes into the constructability and all the people that play a part in that they all need to be part of the development and of driving those solutions. So definitely I think that diversity and bringing different perspectives together and having healthy conversation, giving room for opposing perspectives is very, very important and really taken us to that next level of innovation.

Gregg Lewis:
Very well said. Jenny, this has been fantastic. I really want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to sit down with us today.

Jennifer Mitchell:
My pleasure, Gregg, thank you so much for having me on your show. Really enjoyed it, it was great conversation.

Gregg Lewis:
Thanks. We’d also like to thank our Concrete Credentials podcast listeners. We hope you all subscribe to Concrete Credentials, which is available wherever you get your podcasts. We also strongly encourage your participation in this important conversation. Please reach out to us with your thoughts and feedback, as well as your suggestions for future content by emailing concretecredentials@nrmca.org. And we’ll see you in a couple of weeks.