Jennifer Rennie of Sound Beach remembers her childhood as being different from other young girls: She preferred digging irrigation ditches in her parent’s garden to playing with dolls, and Jennifer loved bridges. “I was always infatuated with them,” she says and remembers driving over the Throgs Neck Bridge envisioning the bridge span as arms, embracing and comforting her.
The stereotype that a woman’s role is in the home or behind a desk was shattered in the Rennie household years before by Jennifer’s mother, Luann DiTommaso. Luann was a marine biologist who worked on commercial and research fishing vessels and was the first woman to ever set foot on a Russian fishing boat. It came as no surprise that Jennifer would also pursue a career in a non-traditional profession.
Jennifer grew up to be confident, creative and funny and because of her outgoing personality, people are drawn to her. When she enrolled at Suffolk Community College, she met Prof. Richard [Bud]Macy, who became her academic mentor. She graduated at the top of her class and was honored as their Student of the Year (valedictorian). “Suffolk Community College changed my life,” Jennifer says proudly. In fact, she was the first female SCC student to graduate with a degree in Construction/Technology/Architectural Technology and move on to a “Big 10” school, earning a degree in civil engineering from Indiana’s Purdue University. But, not before making her mark there, too.
Jennifer was a student at Purdue when we were attacked on 9/11. She told me of her regret of not being in New York during the crisis, as her father, Carl, a sergeant with the Suffolk County Police Department, and other family members were at Ground Zero helping in the rescue effort. Jennifer’s way of coping was to have the World Trade Center’s twin towers tattooed on her ankle. She later found out she was one of only five New Yorkers enrolled at Purdue and was asked to speak at their one-year 9/11 commemorative ceremony. The event grew to include tens of thousands of attendees, with Jennifer at the heart of it all.
Jennifer is a quintessential Long Islander and came back after graduation to be with her parents and friends. Once she was on her home turf, Jennifer began working at Racanelli Construction in Melville where she credits Ray Hassett as being her career mentor. She says Ray helped her rise far and fast in this, a traditionally male-dominated field, and made a huge impact on her life.
Jennifer continued on her path to success and became the first woman project manager hired by Islandia-based Stalco Construction, Inc., a general contracting and construction management firm. Because of her ability to coordinate and control many things at once she was tapped to supervise their “back of the house” operation which also includes project close-outs.
Like many successful women I meet, Jennifer is also a wife and mother but still makes time in her busy schedule to get involved in helping the local community. She has the support of Stalco’s principals, Kevin Harney and Alan Nahmias, who are well-known in the local community as the co-founders of Contractors for Kids, a non profit that is supported by nearly 300 Long Island-based construction and real estate organizations to help children in need.
With their encouragement, she speaks to high school students about careers in the construction and engineering industries and says,
“There’s not enough women in this industry. My gripe is that in high school they don’t tell [women] that they can do this type of work.
They are asked, ‘Do you like math?’ Then [they are told], be a math teacher or an accountant,” she says. “I’m trying to change that.”
Jennifer has been the force behind the re-opening of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Long Island chapter, and serves as their Vice President for the New York City and LI Chapter. NAWIC was founded in 1955 as a support network for women in the building industry and now boasts chapters worldwide. There were only six Long Island women in the organization before Jennifer got involved.
“I went to [NAWIC] national and said, “Let’s get the Long Island chapter back up and running.” Again, Jennifer got the job done and in just eight weeks has recruited four new members.
Her next project is big. She is organizing the first 100 percent Women Build project on Long Island as part of National Women Build Week this coming Mother’s Day. They will be a building a home for a local single mother and her children. Jennifer is coordinating the job with Habitat for Humanity Suffolk and the NAWIC organization, which has participated in the event in the past, but never from start to finish. Jennifer says they need about $85,000 for the project and are raising the majority of funds from women owned businesses with the help of local female leaders.
“It is a fun way to fund raise and it gets a lot of people involved,” Jennifer says and she added, “We already have many offers of help from everyone in the construction industry from Stalco to RXR [Construction and Development] and we also have offers from other woman’s organizations around Long Island.”
It’s no wonder that Jennifer is now receiving accolades from her peers and was recently recognized by Real Estate New York Magazine as a 2009 Woman of Influence in the construction industry.
Because of the strong foundation she received by key mentors throughout her life, Jennifer is continuing the legacy by helping other women emerge as leaders in the engineering and construction industry.
“I see things that every woman can do,” she says with confidence. “[Engineering] is a learned major. Once you wrap your head around it, you can do this job.”
If you know a super woman who deserves good Fortune—and a profile—e-mail your nominations to Beverly at firstname.lastname@example.org.