“The goal is not to check the box but make a cultural change that changes the shape, color and outlines of the “boxes” themselves with a sweeping paradigm shift in how we understand the potential of our teams.”


The ElevateHER Inception Story

On a 2AM, mid-week flight, Jamie Claire Kiser found herself contemplating the solution to the workforce inconsistencies in the AEC industry. The vision for ElevateHer was put into words via an email draft to partners. From 2AM to 5AM, she identified the pain points and rigorously planned for the solution to the issue at hand. Jamie Claire was fully enthralled and energized by the purpose. She sent the first draft to her business partners, Chad Clinehens and Christy Zweig Neihues. In apprehension, she waited for feedback on her gut feeling that the time is now to speak up and to confirm the intent for ElevateHer. The data came after the concept but the results were staggering.

After I meekly shared this idea with Christy Zweig and brought her and my colleague, Jaden Anderson, into the fold, they wisely did some research from Zweig Group’s own data. The results are crushing. I wish I could lead with the data, but that isn’t true to the events (I have a history degree; these things matter). Here’s what we learned within half an hour of re-distributing our survey responses based on gender:

  • 100%. That’s the number of women principals who have ever considered leaving the AE industry. This number compares to 49% of men. I cannot get over this figure. Every single woman in a principal role who responded to our survey has considered leaving this industry. Every. Single. One.
  • 0%. That’s the number of women who were given any portion of their ownership for free. One in three men (33%) answered yes to this survey question. Not a single woman was seen as contributing enough to be awarded ownership, while one-third of men passed the test for an ownership gift.

After receiving this data, we set out to move from concept to execution of this platform. And that’s when I panicked. I have a hard time articulating my reservations about ElevateHer, but I think the most honest way to say it is that I have worked my entire career to be a respected professional, period. I have never been a member of a “women in business” organization; I passed up on the “ladies in law” groups, and I don’t want to be divided from my peers based on presence of ovaries. That isn’t what I am about. I’m about closing deals and getting results. Hell, I didn’t even join a sorority (they weren’t exactly begging for my membership, either).

What I am about is using my visibility to counter the number one challenge identified by principals of Hot Firms: recruiting and retention. The talent shortage in this industry is real.Women are entering engineering and architectural programs at higher rates than ever, but they aren’t staying. And the ones who stay and who grow into principal roles have thought really hard about leaving. We have to find a way to make this industry one that appeals to every bright mind. Women need to feel that they can have a meaningful career as engineers or designers or surveyors or CAD techs. To me, ensuring that those who enter this industry stay in this industry is tantamount to addressing this problem in real time.

My vision for ElevateHer is not one of divisiveness or “women first.” It is a practical acknowledgement of the 100% of women who have considered exiting the AE industry, confronting this challenge, and doing everything that we can to fix this system. We need women in our firms to speak up when they feel alienated. We need others who are advocates for women to be thoughtful in how they speak and to correct actions that undermine the career opportunities available for women.
The industry is incredibly busy. So busy that when we talk to firm leaders, we hear that they are reluctant to get rid of the under-performers because even the little they do helps. The solution to the talent gap is often buying a company or investing in recruiting. Yet while we are doing these things, we are not acknowledging the opportunity to engage women in staying in this industry. Finding the next generation of women and employing them until they join the 100% ranks is an unacceptable, repetitive cycle. How do we break this cycle? We cannot afford to lose educated, trained staff.We have to become companies that truly support the careers of women if we want to build companies that appropriately reflect the communities we serve.

I can say all of this, I can cite statistics, but the truth is that I was not ready to bring ElevateHer to fruition without a strong measure of hand-wringing and introspection. There is something about a movement that is by definition exclusive that I find unfortunate. My profound sense of discomfort with ElevateHer centers on the lack of control inherent with launching any movement. I cannot control how people will interpret ElevateHer.

Back to that late Thursday night, is a story that evidences the cracks in the façade of the women in leadership roles in this industry. The “breaking point” moment for me that sparked an insomnia-fueled draft of the roughest framework for the ElevateHer concept was after a board member in a meeting interrupted me while I was in the middle of presenting a term sheet for an acquisition to tell me that his wife would just love my shoes.

This company had invested months of time, assembled a dozen of their leaders from across the country in a single room, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in preparation for that very moment – in finding the right company to acquire, in proceeding through negotiating and structuring this deal – and at that very moment, that precise instant of execution – my appearance distracted the room from hearing my ideas.

To make matters worse, this actually happened the same week that I invited a prospective client to meet up for dinner or drinks when I was passing through the city his firm is based in. The invitation was declined because, as he said, he was married and that would be inappropriate.

On my flight back home the night after the meeting – the last flight out, scheduled to touch down at 11:50pm on a Thursday – I, the only woman upgraded to business class, that sense of isolation manifested and I started crying. Granted, I am an easy crier; I’m on the verge of tears 60% of the time, but I couldn’t figure out why I was upset for a few minutes. Then it hit me that I was simply exhausted by the constant reminders that I am not the same as the others in the room. As a negotiator, it took me out of the moment and disarmed me in a way that I truly couldn’t counter. In a word, albeit a pouty one, it seemed “unfair” that my appearance is acceptable for discussion in the middle of a conversation about a multi-million dollar strategic investment. It is embarrassing to know that no matter how hard I work, no matter what I contribute to a company or to this industry, the conversation may still be interrupted by and overshadowed by a pair of Manolos. The deal I helped craft closed, by the way, and I didn’t once interrupt the gentleman who asked the question to inquire about the source of his pleated khakis.

I speak from experience when I say that the little things weigh down women in this industry over time. Another example: I received harsh blow-back from an email marketing campaign that I wrote in the first person for our succession planning round table event. The campaign centered on preparing incoming strategic leaders to “step into the shoes” of the outgoing leaders and featured a great pair of shoes that I – as the author of the piece – would merrily step into. I received an angry email from a man who found the image of heels to be salacious and the email to be full of innuendo (“you know full well you aren’t selling a seminar with this email”). He also told me – and I quote – “women in architecture and engineering firms don’t wear heels.”

When my colleagues and I are on-site with a client for the first time and I can find the opportune time to bring up my status on American Airlines (since you asked, I’ve already qualified for executive platinum for 2019), there is a follow up question that I can count on every time: “and how does your husband feel about all that travel?” I’ve yet to hear this question posed a single time to a single one of my male co-workers. Oddly enough, clients never ask me this question a second time after spending a day with me. I think everyone is united in appreciating my energy level in measured doses.

For a final example. At a recent, small round table event that we hosted, I was the only female participant out of the group of 30 or so. I was introduced to a CEO of a firm, who, upon hearing my title, replied by saying that he just assumed I was attending as Mark Zweig’s personal assistant. I informed him that I am woefully under-qualified for that role and laughed it off.

These things are not a big deal. None of them are. Not one. I certainly feel that I have been afforded the proverbial “seat at the table”; I have thick skin, and I love talking about shoes. The problem is that these examples make me keenly aware that I am different, and that difference makes me self-conscious. And when I am self-conscious, I can’t bring my best ideas to the table that I am told to “lean in” to.

But I was still reluctant to be the voice – perhaps the shoes? – of ElevateHer. It wasn’t until I sat down with Sepi Saidi and bared my genuine reservations about launching ElevateHer and threaded together all of these insignificant stories in a cohesive way that I gathered the thoughts behind this article. Sepi – a force to be reckoned with as a business leader and professional – has been through a hell of a lot more than I have to be accepted in this industry, but despite this, her response was simple: “if not you, who?” And she’s right. If there’s something that needs to be said, a statistic that needs to be acknowledged, and a platform that needs to be launched, fear cannot be a preclusion. I believe that my reservations underscore the reality of the situation – perhaps nothing is “wrong”, but we can work together to make things “more righter” (in Arkansan).

ElevateHer will take energy and time from women who want to bring their best ideas to the table, and from men who want the best ideas out of their colleagues. This isn’t a “girl power” thing; I’m not a “girl boss” or a “she-FO”. This is something much more important and something that every person reading this has to join us to help implement. I believe the future of this industry will be indelibly changed if we are successful in this effort, and I hope that all of you join me and join the 100% of women who have considered leaving this industry in working toward a more sustainable future.

Steering Committee

Jamie Claire Kiser

Bernhard Capital Partners


O’Connell Robertson

Chad Clinehens

Zweig Group


JQ Engineering, LLP | now IMEG

Marci Thompson

Society for Marketing Professional Services

Christy Zweig

ElevateHER cofounder


Shirley Che – director

Bree Sikes – brand identity & designer

Katelyn Dover – marketing

Ying Liu – staff advisor

Chad Coldiron – staff advisor

Jeremy Clarke – staff advisor

Lauren Aguilar – DEI consultant

Luke Carothers – writer


There are younger groups of women entering the field that I know we can provide better opportunities for, but we have to start building leaders. I want to be that leader.


With more than 30 years in HR, I have worked hard on gender equality in the workplace. I have been amazed these past five years by just how far behind this industry is.


A cultural change toward diversity starts at the top. Company leaders must lead, act, and set an example of inclusion every day. It must be ingrained into the culture and values of the company. Set the tone, and others will follow.


There is a lack of diversity of people working in this industry, there could be lack of diversity in the breadth of innovation, solutions, and approaches taken which moves this industry forward.


Announcing the 2024 Cohort

Each year, a cohort of up to 40 AEC professionals from all over the country, and across the org chart, join forces to develop and disseminate actionable plans that aim to solve the recruitment and retention crisis in the industry via the lenses of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The results are made available to the entire AEC community and are ready for turn-key implementation.

2024 Cohort

Meet our past cohort members

2020 Cohort
2021 Cohort
2022 Cohort
2023 Cohort