After 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, the strongest and most destructive hurricane to hit the Hawaiian Islands in recorded history, Whitney Dorn (then a construction management major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) headed across the Pacific Ocean to help rebuild Kauai. The six months she spent pouring concrete, bending rebar, performing demolition, framing and working as a hod carrier confirmed for her that she was going to school for exactly what she wanted to do for the rest of her career. She wanted to be a builder.
“I could really picture myself being in the construction industry,” she said. “When you’re working in the field, you can see the fruits of your labor. That, combined with the constant problem solving, is what really attracted me to what I do.”
She joined DPR after graduating, and spent the first 15 years of her career in operations. In 2008, she began leading DPR’s sustainability initiative to help customers develop and implement the best strategies through experienced people, a collaborative methodology, and custom tools to address the triple bottom line: environmental, social and economic.
After five years of educating customers and DPR teams about building sustainable structures, Dorn transitioned back to an operations role as a project executive. She has since worked on notable projects, including a wireless phone company’s headquarters, Torrey Pines Science Park and a 73-acre corporate campus project in Irvine, California, which is completing in January 2018.
“There’s nothing like being on the jobsite. You spend so much time with your team, and you’re not only building great buildings, but building a great team at the same time,” she said.
Dorn sees trust and respect as the foundation for any highly functioning team. “It’s about respecting what all the different roles on a jobsite bring to the table, abolishing a lack of trust, and figuring out how to move forward in a positive way together.” Using a football metaphor, she tells her teams that they can be the running back, and she’ll be the blocker, taking out the obstacles so they can do their best work.
She has taken out many of her own obstacles, as well. When she meets her customers for the first time, she often finds that they are expecting a man to run their project. She doesn’t take it personally; she moves forward by never questioning what she brings to the table and uses her own technical expertise to deliver her projects successfully.
“I know others are looking at me to see how I deal with situations, particularly the younger women. It’s very important to me to set a good example, and give them the confidence that this is a great career, something that they can do and make work for their lives,” she said.
Since 2003, Dorn has been mentoring youths through the San Diego ACE Mentor program, and is taking over as chairwoman this upcoming year. She also participated in DPR’s pilot high school internship program, offering under-resourced yet highly qualified high school students interested in STEM careers real-life professional experience on a jobsite. Dorn and other members of her project team mentored Jessica Reynoso, a high schooler from East Los Angeles who wants to become an engineer, exposing her to career paths available in the construction industry.
Through her work both “on and off the field,” she hopes the next generation of builders will find their moment–like she did while she was laboring in Kauai. She hopes they can see themselves in this industry, picture the career paths ahead of them, and know that building great things is what they want to do for the rest of their lives.