How mentorship and determination paved the way to success
By Author: Andrea Pendergast
Communications specialist, Great River Energy
Women are playing an increasingly large and important role in the worlds of commercial real estate and economic development – and they are bringing with them a wealth of knowledge from previous jobs on their career path, as well as the strength of relationships built among each other along the way.
Erin Sparks, economic developer with Great River Energy – a not-for-profit wholesale power cooperative based out of Maple Grove, Minn. – and Kylle Jordan, regional business development manager at Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), are examples of women making strides in their fields while working collaboratively to achieve both of their organization’s missions.
At DEED, Jordan works with businesses looking to expand or grow, hire workforce or purchase equipment and ensuring that it is a successful endeavor whether that means finding the perfect location or financial incentives to make it happen.
“We have specialized programs, such as tax incentives for data centers and a shovel-ready program, that parallel really well with utilities,” Jordan said.
Sparks notes that her role at Great River Energy is much of the same, though with a focus on a business’ power-related questions and needs, and the added layer of working with the utility’s 28 member-owner cooperatives located across the state.
Jordan outlined the three overlapping purposes between DEED and Great River Energy: working with businesses to help them expand; business attraction work for targeted industry sectors such as data centers, food processing and advanced manufacturing; and also certifying and promoting shovel-ready sites.
“We work closely in all of those areas with the unified message that Minnesota is a great place to expand your businesses,” Jordan said.
Another similarity between the two women: Neither anticipated going into this industry until they were encouraged to do so while attending St. Cloud State University. Sparks spoke of the dean of the community studies program as someone who told her, “You have a natural knack for this and I think you could be really successful in this career.” Jordan took the advice of a counselor to start her path in international relations, which ultimately led to a Master’s in global finance trade and economic integration.
Additional support they found along the way came in the form of female mentors, even if those women weren’t aware at the time of the impact they had on them.
Working for the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, Jordan points to two women who she worked as an assistant for who were “a good touch point” for advice ranging from personal life decisions to handing her challenges they knew she was capable of tackling, even if she didn’t believe so herself.
“When the time was coming for me to leave [that job], they were very supportive and let me know what my strongest skills were and told me which job positions I was looking at would be best suited for me,” Jordan said. “While it wasn’t a formal mentorship, they were really good colleagues.”
Sparks named Heidi Peper, central region director of sales for Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc., as someone who has inspired her along her career path.
“At the point when I was not fully knowing what to do in my career, she encouraged me to apply for the Economic Development Association of Minnesota board and also encouraged me to get involved with a committee,” Sparks said. “She would throw stuff at me and assume I’d catch it, and since I admire her so much I didn’t want to let her down.”
Both women agree that there currently is a fairly good representation of women in their industry, though the environment can still sometimes breed competition among them.
“I think [the competition] puts this idea in your head that maybe only one of us women will advance to a leadership role since they are more often than not held by men,” Sparks said. “As the industry continues to shift and you see more women working in it, hopefully we’ll continue seeing less of that.”
Despite this feeling of competition, Sparks said, “It’s really helpful to have another woman you can look up to as a mentor and answer questions because you’re going to encounter things in your day-to-day career life that school does not prepare you for and you’re not going to know how to handle it or respond. It’s also important for women to know they need to do their part in helping build up the women around them.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help because – being only two years into this – there is a lot I didn’t know, and there are a lot of people who have answers,” Jordan added.
After finding their way to their respective specialties, Sparks and Jordan feel they have landed in careers where they are able to thrive and make the most of their skills.
“As someone who grew up in the suburbs and didn’t see a lot of this state, the opportunity to work with these shovel-ready sites and development programs – to get out and experience my state in a totally different way is awesome,” Jordan said.
“[Our] job is ultimately solving a puzzle where there is no right way of completing it. It’s figuring out what is wrong and figuring out what you can do. You try things and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. No two business financing projects look the same, but through trial and error, you make it work,” Sparks said. “You also get to meet so many people, which is rewarding and fulfilling. Knowing you’re all working for this common purpose which is to grow the economy, create good jobs for people, to make this a more vibrant place for people to live and work.”