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These 5 Women Are Changing the Face of Real Estate Development

Christine Camp, Laura Kodoma, Cayenne Pe‘a, Karen Seddon and Michelle Swartman are proving that it’s not a man’s world anymore.

Hawaii Business Magazine

October 5, 2022 – Early in Karen Seddon’s Career, her boss told her the big construction company where they worked was letting her go.

He said, “You’ve hit a glass ceiling in this company and you’re not going to get past it. And it’s not you, it’s them.”

The boss did not say it directly, but the message was clear: The company was not willing to promote a woman.

Seddon says she was furious and questioned whether she should leave construction but stayed because she loved the industry.

After getting a job at another construction company that treated her right, gave her opportunities to advance and helped her gain back confidence, she realized that, “in the end, he did me a favor.”

“That change in my life became a really positive thing and so I prefer to look at it as good fortune rather than bad fortune.”


Change In Direction

Photo: Aaron Yoshino

Seddon, who eventually ended up moving from construction to development, says she’s always looking out for new opportunities and possibilities. And that mindset, she says, can work for anyone in any field: “You should always be reassessing,” she says, whether you’re looking to change careers or are perfectly happy where you are.

“You have to be open to that thing that shows up that you didn’t expect.”

That approach, she says, ensures she never misses an opportunity that could further her career, success and happiness. “You want to be challenged, you want to keep going, you want to add, give back.”

That desire to give back has led to her current work building affordable housing. “This is the kind of industry where you have to have a passion for it or you can’t do it. It would make you insane. … It’s not simple, but it is rewarding.”

She says essential workers like teachers, firefighters, police officers, bank clerks and retail workers need affordable housing because of their relatively low wages and the high cost of living in the Islands.

The obstacles to building affordable housing here are intricate, she says, but she and others in the field have decided, “We’re here to do this because it’s needed and we can do it.”


Many Changes

She says so much has changed since the day she walked onto her first project site two weeks after graduating from Oregon State University in 1979 with a bachelor’s in construction engineering. That’s when the project superintendent told her: “I need a letter typed. Karen, type this letter.”

“He decided he was going to show me that he was in charge,” she recalls, so she replied, “I don’t know how to type.”

She knew how to type, but her response was meant as a “little pushback” against a man who had never been pushed back before.

Even today, “There are still both men and women who feel like women shouldn’t be in the workforce, and because they’re women, they’re never going to be as good.”

She learned the way to persevere “is having confidence in yourself and your knowledge and standing your ground.”


Support In University

She and a classmate were the second and third women to graduate from Oregon State’s construction engineering program, where she found support and friendship among classmates. There was a little lighthearted teasing too, which, she says, was “never undermining or disrespectful.”

That changed when she actually got into the construction business. “It was way more, ‘What are you doing here? You should be at home having babies.’ ”

Seddon’s tone becomes soft as she recalls an especially horrible incident when she was a project manager in Oregon. The grader was a shy young woman who had just begun her career at a time when it was still rare to see women on construction sites.

A male dozer operator thought the young woman didn’t belong. One day, as she was on her knees pounding a stake into the ground, he dropped the blade of his dozer onto the back of her legs, crushing the muscles in a way that would affect her for the rest of her life. She would never walk the same again.

“Supposedly it was an accident,” Seddon says.

“The rest of the operators were pretty sure that he’d done it on purpose,” or at the very least, “they knew that he didn’t value her enough to be careful enough not to end up hurting her.”

As she tells the story, Seddon comes close to tears. He could have easily killed her, she says, and describes what happened as a hateful act against a young woman who was “just trying to learn, improve herself and be able to make a better living for herself.”

Read full article HERE.