A true trailblazer, Emily Bittenbender visited the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and shared her approach and mindset to become one of the leading construction firms in Philadelphia.
A few months ago, I learned that Emily Bittenbender was going to speak to a phenomenal group I’m a part of, the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) of the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Emily Bittenbender is the Managing Partner of Bittenbender Construction- a Philadelphia based commercial general contractor and construction management firm. When asked at our monthly meeting, whether there was anyone who wanted to lead the conversation with Emily, I eagerly volunteered. I recently heard her speak at a year-end breakfast for businesses in Germantown and West Oak Lane- thanks to Ken Weinstein of Jumpstart Germantown- and immediately connected with her energy. On Wednesday, April 11th, I had the opportunity to moderate a conversation with Emily for WLI. She’s what I’d like to call a Rebel Girl. My daughter and I have the book “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls,” which give a brief overview of 100 women who have been pioneers in their field. She’ll tell you she hates speaking on stage or in front of a large crowd, but the passion she shares to get to where she is seems to always command everyone’s attention, which she did when she spoke to our group.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry is something I can relate to. When I first got started, it was intimidating for me to be in a room full of white men. Many times, I’m the only minority, or woman or minority woman- which I still experience this today. She reflected on the time when she first got started around 15 years ago- and at that time, people doubted her and told her she wouldn’t last. But she continuously “showed up” and proved herself through her work ethic and commitment to succeed. She consistently submitted bids alongside the city’s largest construction firms and started winning. In what she shared, I heard that it didn’t matter to her how she stacked up against her competitors. Over and over again, regardless of whether she “lost” she gave her best in an environment where most people- both men and women- would not. And every “failure” meant she learned something new that could improve her game.
When asked about a mentor or sponsor, she couldn’t name 1 person, but there were those who encouraged her throughout her career- who are both friends and competitors til this day. One story she shared that really resonated with me was that of an African American architect who was inspired by Emily and wanted to be mentored by her. Emily didn’t just offer to sponsor her, which is completely different than mentoring. The woman was invited to eat, sleep and work alongside with Emily, so that she captured a real sense of the day to day, see what it takes and get a deep understanding of what she’d be getting into. Imagine?! I’m not one to hold back my facial expressions but I’m pretty sure my mouth literally dropped. This meant so much to me on so many levels. She ended the story with what she wanted in return and said, “the only payback I want from you, is that you do this for someone else.” YES!!! Talk about a legacy!
When I asked her to describe a passion project that she’s currently working or has worked on, she said “We love to do parks, it’s our passion, because of the impact on the community.” From the Bittenbender website, “our motivation and drive come from our love of building projects that have had a significant impact on our city and our citizens” She shared how one of her favorite projects to date is Sister Cities Park. And the joy it brings her to just sit in the park with her sunglasses and coffee, incognito, and see all the families and children enjoying what her company created. You could tell how moved she was, when she shared the story of how someone noticed her and gave her a heartfelt thank you for her work. The importance of walking the talk and contributing positively to the community is clearly very personal for her and probably one of the reasons she has risen as a leader in the industry. It was clear that she thoroughly thinks through each job and considers the impact it will have for generations to come.
One of Emily's goals has been to help foster a better environment for women in the industry, which is clearly part of the legacy she will leave behind as an entrepreneurial trailblazer- who happens to be a woman.
The following video particularly speaks to how she thinks about her own legacy and the legacies of those who have come before her: