Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Undeterred’ Haitian engineer in NYC builds out Queens infrastructure

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Nathalie Pierre-Georges discusses her work in the DDC, diversity in the workplace and the importance of trusting your voice.

QUEENS — The first thing you notice about Nathalie Pierre-Georges is her smile. Animated hand gestures, gleeful laughter and steady eye contact then draw people in, especially as she speaks about her role as the Director of Infrastructure at the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC).

With more than 23 years on the job and overseeing a team of engineers designing and maintaining infrastructure projects, her life can be hectic. On a chilly late afternoon last February, Pierre-Georges gave a tour of a multi-faceted project to fix flooding for Broad Channel residents. The project, awarded the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s  “Envision Verified Award” for sustainability, was nearing completion. Pierre-Georges’ team was busy installing new bulkheads at the end of each street to mitigate flooding, adding signage to help pedestrians along  the streets and replacing water mains and sanitary sewers. But, it’s work she loves. 

“It’s not always easy,” Pierre-Georges said, during an interview at a work site in Southeast Queens last February. “But it’s definitely doable.”

And just how, especially in the male-dominated world of civil engineering and construction? Her view, based on a career experience early on, sums it up for aspirants.

“Do what you gotta do, learn your stuff, know what you’re talking about when you’re across those tough contractors,” Pierre-Georges said. “That’s what I have: Persistence. Knowledge.”

Nathalie Pierre-Georges. Photo by Gabrielle Pascal / The Haitian Times

Engineering success

Born in Montreal, Pierre-Georges grew up in Port-au-Prince, where she often spent time with extended family, eating with relatives  on Sundays and partaking in other weekend activities. In that milieu, she was exposed early on to engineering. Her uncles were in architectural and civil engineering and her father in chemical engineering. 

“I was always in a crowd of male entourages. Uncles, cousins,” she trailed off. “Those [engineering experiences] were the things I grew up with and I got comfortable doing.” 

Political unrest following the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide brought her education to a halt, prompting Pierre-Georges to shift course. In August 1993, she moved to Québec to complete a civil engineering degree at the Université de Sherbrooke, followed by a master’s degree in rehabilitation of infrastructure. 

She then went on to work in various design firms. It was while working as an office engineer with The RBA Group, a firm based in New Jersey, often dealing with contractors and numerous personalities, that Pierre-Georges learned to stand by her decisions and trust her voice.

A team of construction workers on a major infrastructure project in Broad Channel, Queens. Photo by Gabrielle Pascal / The Haitian Times

“You have to make your point,” Pierre-Georges said. “Since we’re talking quantities and it involves money, that’s when you sometimes have to get your supervisor on board to back you up and fight back.” 

Pierre-Georges then went to the DDC in 2006, carrying that determination with her first in design, then civil engineering and construction — “where the fun started,” she said. In her current position, she oversees major projects in Rosedale and Beach 108th Street in Rockaway, Queens.

Role modeling and motivating – with a smile

While her industry is very much male-dominated — with women comprising only 15% of engineers and architects, according to a Pew Research Center, and 10.8% of construction workers, a Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported — Pierre-Goerges said women still shouldn’t be intimidated to join. 

An essential tool for a woman making it in construction and engineering is to be undeterred, she said. Though there’s still work to be done, notable strides are being made and organizations are in place to support women entering those fields. 

Other women who have reached success also act as motivators, formally and informally. As is the case for Monica Kelada, an inspector on Pierre-Georges’ team.

“When I see her big smile, she gets me excited,” Kelada said. “Seeing her doing her job with love and excitement every day, that’s very good for me to [see]. She always encouraged me to do more and go up.”

Nathalie Pierre-Georges. Courtesy photo / NYC Department of Design and Construction

Omar Salhoobi, an engineer on Pierre-Georges’ team for nearly eight years, her dedication is motivating. 

“She’s very detail-oriented,” Salhoobi said. “Sometimes, I see myself receiving email at eight o’clock at night. I was like, ‘wow, Nathalie’s still working.’ We know how much work ethic she has.” 

For her future, Pierre-Georges keeps three things top of mind: her family — husband Stéphan Georges and sons, Kamil and Dorian — her career ambitions and her home. She plans to continue striving for promotions and key projects with DDC to help residents have a better quality of life. Eventually, Pierre-George said, she would like to return to Haiti and share her expertise to develop better infrastructure in the country.

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