Building a Better World

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Building a Better World

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Jag magazine.


As an 8-year-old, endlessly arranging the pieces of her pastel Mega Blocs set on the living room floor, Caroleen Wilkes ’09 was predestined for a profession she had yet to know the name of. Fascinated by the idea of building teams, comprised of people with different skills, to design great places, she asked her mom what that job was called. Developer was the answer she had been looking for. That desire to build teams that create great things, she explains, still serves as her motivation each day. 

You are a senior project manager for Cumming Corporation in Nashville. What do you do in that role?

I represent property owners and investors in creating and improving their real estate assets. We start with an idea and try to curate the right building for the right cost in the right time. I put a team together of designers, engineers, builders, attorneys, financial analysts, and do my best to optimize their diverse skill sets through collaboration, communication, and accountability to meet owner requirements and applicable laws. Groundbreaking is a momentous day for everyone involved, but for me I’m reflecting on how well we accomplished our goals by working together. Personally, I take it a step further and ask myself if my community is better for the work we’ve accomplished and if so, how?

How does sustainability factor into your job? Why is it important?

Sustainability is simply creating value using the least amount of resources we can. If you’re looking to make one bowl of cereal, do you buy a pint of milk or a gallon? Reduction of waste is common sense for all industries. Specific to the built environment, we’re currently responsible for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of energy around the globe. With that magnitude of impact, we have a responsibility to design and build better.

I’m challenging my clients and project teams to create “high performing assets,” which intentionally considers the efficiency of heating and cooling a building, reduces water use from the baseline, increases landscaping and daylight, and challenges use-specific rooms for multi-purpose spaces. I don’t get every sustainable item I ask for, but I’m dedicated to raising the bar one project at a time. The biggest challenge for sustainability is getting an investor to consider savings 10 years in advance rather than short-term gains. I’ve seen it several times over where spending the least amount today on a building does not produce a high performing asset. Those are unfortunate realities, but they’ve served me well in my storytelling to gain sustainability support. In time, I’m seeing more property owners consider their building’s use over a decade or more, which makes sustainability more palatable. 

Would you say that your job requires a strong blend of an analytical mindset with a great deal of empathy and understanding for people? 

Absolutely. No deal is the same, which I love! Every design brings unique challenges so there’s always a risk to mitigate, terms to negotiate, and value to attain. All of that takes persistent analysis and teamwork.

How do environments and spaces impact experience?

In college at Ohio State, I graduated with my professional mission statement, which still drives me today: to provide property development solutions that improve the built environment with projects that are economically, environmentally, and socially beneficial to their communities.

Some in my profession look at spaces as dollars and cents or brick and mortar, but ultimately we’re creating the places that people live, work, and play in. The lighting and green spaces effect occupants’ moods, energy efficiency effect someone’s budget, public spaces enhance our collective wellbeing, accessibility broaden our perspective about the environment and people around us. Spaces matter!

What is the best part of your job?

I build teams that build great places! Every project needs great leaders with expertise in architecture, engineering, law, construction. I select those strategic partners, procure their scope of services, and negotiate their contracts. It’s pretty gratifying to sit in a design charrette with 20+ highly qualified professionals and know I had a hand in bringing those people together to create the next great place in a city/community.

You were a Resident Manager at The Ohio State Univeristy and Head Resident at Vanderbilt. Wellington Head of School Dr. Jeff Terwin often talks about how valuable his experience as an RA was in his own life. What lessons do you think you learned from it?

The residence life/residential education experience as a paraprofessional staff member stretched me in many ways, but helped mold me as a leader much faster than my peers. 

I became a manager as a sophomore in college, which exposed me to training my own staff, practicing effective communication, responding to crises with or without instruction, how to identify community members struggling with mental health concerns and mediate conflict resolution. These are incredible skills to walk out of college with that you certainly can’t learn from a textbook.

What do you love most about what you do?

When I travel to a city, sometimes I’m able to point to a building and share stories about a creative proposal my team had to make to gain the city’s support, or the exterior materials we changed to maintain the viability of the project, or the signatures of several subcontractors on the wood/concrete behind drywall. For projects I’m not involved with, I look at buildings and think through how that project was shaped by its environment and culture. I love the ideas and stories of the places around us. I’m told I’d make a great tour guide, if my development career doesn’t pan out!

Historically, your field has been very male-dominated. What has been your experience as a woman of color in pushing through professional barriers without many, if any, role models who look like you?

I’ve built several projects with people of backgrounds and skills much different than mine and its taken collaboration and support from my counterparts to do so. There have been instances where I’ve encountered resistance, but I address them or move on. My dad reminds me that those instances are par for the course when you’re a pioneer in an industry. I would never choose the word “pioneer” for myself, but some days I look around a conference room of 20+ people and realize I’m the only minority. If anything, those sudden realizations have inspired a desire to create a new normal; I want to see more cultures and women represented in development. Our communities deserve to be fully represented in the design and build process. In fact, our cities will be better for it!

You came to Wellington as a 7th grader. What was that experience like?

Diversity comes to mind. I learned about different countries and religions through my classmates and their parents. I was encouraged to pursue success in the classroom and extracurricular activities.

How did your experience as a Wellington student influence who you are today?

As a Wellington student, I don’t recall ever being told of a right or wrong answer. Instead, I was encouraged and challenged to explore perspectives and defend my conclusions. Whether it was politics, religion, history, composition; learning in that kind of environment helped me find my voice! I graduated aware of some distinct personal beliefs, but perhaps more importantly with an appreciation that there are other beliefs just as valid.  

You mentioned having a love for travel and experiencing different cultures. How has that impacted your life trajectory?

Culture and environment impact the way people live, what they eat, how they build, the music they create, and how they connect. I love exploring that in a comparative context! It also reminds me how many other ways there are to do life, which is always great to reflect on as I make goals and plans for the future. I’d love to explore living and working abroad at some point, which has always been the goal since I had an interactive globe as a child. I’m really excited to explore how that will continue to inform my life and character.  

What sports or extracurricular activities had the most profound impact on you?

I’m convinced golf prepared me to thrive in my environment. On the golf course, I was most often the youngest, only female, and person of color, but I competed and built great relationships between the tee box and the greens. I’m still most often the youngest, only female, and person of color in the conference room, but my environment has never been intimidating because its familiar. I also gained a strong mental game through golf so I rarely get frazzled when things don’t go as planned. I adapt and hope for a “better shot” the next time around!

 You serve on a number of non-profit boards and have clearly made service an important part of your life? Can you talk a little about what you do and why it’s important to give back?

I served on my first non-profit committee in 8th grade for the American Diabetes Association, started a club in high school called Operation Adopt A Solider sending letters to deployed troops at war in the Middle East, and then interned on the Ohio for Obama campaign during my senior year. These experiences of exercising my voice, taking initiative, and having global influence at such a formative age have certain instilled in me a civic duty to use my influence for good.

What do you like to do for fun?

Golf. International travel. Try new recipes. I host dinners at various immigrant owned restaurants several times a year. Community service. Hike. 

How can today’s Wellington students shape the world?

The world needs more leaders that are committed to lifelong learning. Our world is dynamic, its people diverse, and our challenges complex, but when leaders take ownership of those challenges and admit to not knowing it all, we can make our world better.