Kristen Marie Rios: “Having a fair attitude is key”

Self-confidence is critical for leadership because it gives them wings to take risks, accomplish goals, and fly high. Leaders take charge themselves and march with positivity and confidence. It allows them to make immediate decisions, solve organizational problems and conflicts. Good leaders take full responsibility and quick actions without passing on issues, ignoring, or procrastinating. […]

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Self-confidence is critical for leadership because it gives them wings to take risks, accomplish goals, and fly high. Leaders take charge themselves and march with positivity and confidence. It allows them to make immediate decisions, solve organizational problems and conflicts. Good leaders take full responsibility and quick actions without passing on issues, ignoring, or procrastinating.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Marie Rios.

Kristen Marie Rios is a multi-faceted woman. Professionally working as a civil engineer working in the construction industry at the heart of NYC. She is also an international swimsuit model & beauty queen, represented New York as Miss NYC and New Jersey as Miss Passaic.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you specific career path?

Thank you so much for having me! I have always liked to build things! When I was a kid, I played with my Barbie dream house by taking it apart and putting it back together. As an adult, I do creative DIY projects in my home. Growing up, I went to private catholic schools, where I was proficient in math and science. When I turned 17, I participated in the Manhattan College Summer Engineering Program for high school students, which introduces students to various engineering, math, and science careers. This program has been ongoing for over 30 years, thanks to my former professor, Dr. Saukin.

During this program, I wanted to pursue chemical engineering with the idea of producing makeup and perfume line. Surprisingly, it was the structural engineering portion that I excelled in. For this engineering portion, students were asked to build a structure out of balsa sticks. Each structure was loaded with Manhattan phone books until failure. The last structure standing was declared the winner, which was my structure.

In addition to winning that contest, Dr. Saukin spoke to me about a career in civil engineering. He explained the demand for them and sold me on “you will always have a job.” After graduating from Manhattan College with a BS in Civil Engineering, I started my career as an engineering consultant doing bridge design. I performed calculations and drafted plans. After a few years, I switched to the fast-paced and exciting world of construction, and I like this side of the industry better. Even though it is stressful, demanding, and abrasive, it’s rewarding, and I enjoy the challenge..

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I began working for Perfetto Enterprises as a general contractor specializing in underground utility work. Coming from a corporate environment, I had a mix of emotions joining a small family company. But I was ready to view this as a refreshing yet challenging change, which turned out to be so positive that I got an opportunity to work directly with the owner!

Can you share a funny story about being on an active construction site when you were first starting?

The first bridge I ever built with a general contractor was a ramp at the George Washington Bridge. My super, Nino, was 65 and super old-school with two volumes when he spoke: yelling and screaming. He fashioned a bar handle mustache and a Santa Claus belly. His Spanish accent was thick, so when he called me, my name came out like “kreesteenaaahhh.”

Anyway, it was supposed to be the first day we got a shovel in the ground when Nino called me in the trailer from the field, telling me to cancel work for the day. I told him I didn’t want to hear that and to find a way. We battled back and forth a bit, but all I could make out were curse words and some broken Spanglish about a TCC (traffic control coordinator). Since we were both yelling and neither of us was effectively communicating, one of us just hung up the phone. Seconds later, Nino comes stomping into the trailer and yells, “Kristina, why do you have to break my balls. I told you we could not work today because the tcc didn’t show up. Ok? It’s over. We can start the project tomorrow!”

At this point, I vaguely remembered sleeping through a TCC training class that I thought I would never utilize. So, I decided that I would be the TCC! I felt like a superhero telling Nino I had this random certification. I told him all about the class and how I knew the cones’ spacing and the taper lengths, etc.

With that, I told Nino that we were most certainly going to work, and I didn’t want to hear otherwise! I mean, the show must go on, and it was about time I put that certification to some use.

I expected Nino to explode, but instead, he took out a cigar, nodded his head a lot, and said, “ok, Kristina. You’re the boss around here. Ok, no problem. I’ll get the guys ready for work. You come to meet me in the yard when you’re prepared to be the TCC.

I had only one problem at this point. I needed a copy of my certification as proof. It’s not the kind of thing you keep in your Gucci bag, ya know? It was just after 7 am, and I needed the office to open and send me a copy. Since I was in a desperate panic, someone got me in touch with someone who managed to send me this certification. I was seriously on fire this morning. I mean, nothing was stopping me.

I got my hard hat and stepped out of the trailer to see everyone overly peppy to go to work. The police escort had the sirens going, the laborers were already waiting on the attenuator, and everyone was smiling. I felt proud at this moment like I saved the day or something.

This was when Nino threw his arms up and said, “yes, thank you, Jesus, we can go to work now; the TCC is here!”. Then he kept ushering me over to the truck while he said, “Ok, Kristina, you want to be the tcc today? All you have to do is drive the attenuator truck!” I looked up at the 22,000-pound truck with the lights flashing, and we started laughing.

I had forgotten that I would have needed a CDL license in addition to the certification!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our work scope includes sewer and water main construction, both of which are critical to NYC infrastructure. Throughout COVID-19, we have not missed a single day on my project!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Currently, I am managing a 16M Sewer and Water Main Project in Brooklyn. It will help New York City because we are restoring and upgrading the deteriorated urban neighborhood of Crown Heights.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am certainly NOT satisfied! I think we need more women to enter the field to even the score since it’s male dominated!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I face stereotypes not only as a woman but also, as a model and public figure. I am attractive, outgoing and I look much younger than my real age. Both men and women assume that I am incapable of performing my job because of the way I look. To address this, I have become Miss New York City. This platform allows me to bring positive awareness to women in engineering and construction.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Not ALL women in the STEM and Tech field are introverted and nerdy! You will never catch me playing dungeon and dragons! Modeling has allowed me the opportunity to travel to exotic location and work with top videographers from around the globe. Plus, I get to keep all the bikinis!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. One of the essential leadership qualities is honesty. Honesty is expected from leaders to garner trust and respect from people for reliability. Moreover, we look up to people who are loyal to their words and are accountable. Thus, honesty is the most valued trait for any business leader or any leader in general.
  2. I have learned to listen because people will follow you if you make them feel heard.
  3. If you want to be a leader, you have to be innovative. Be open to new ideas and discussions. A leader listens to everyone actively and also motivate others to think out of the box. This quality gives them an edge over others since they are always hunting for creativity and innovations.
  4. Having a fair attitude is key. Good leaders are fair to the employees and the organization’s processes. They acknowledge the good and always make room for everyone to thrive together.
  5. Self-confidence is critical for leadership because it gives them wings to take risks, accomplish goals, and fly high. Leaders take charge themselves and march with positivity and confidence. It allows them to make immediate decisions, solve organizational problems and conflicts. Good leaders take full responsibility and quick actions without passing on issues, ignoring, or procrastinating.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

1. Each employee may crave different types of flexibility. Talk to your team members to understand what ideal flexibility means to them.

2. Manage, but don’t micromanage. Build a strong team that you trust; give them clear guidance and establish goalposts on the direction you want for the team. Have your team members report to you regularly but give them the space to operate and grow on their own.

3. I think it’s really important to inspire and educate your teams by getting out of the office. So often we are so busy that we stay locked behind our desks and use the internet as our portal to understand our clients and categories. But it’s not the same as talking to real people and observing market behavior firsthand.

4. I would also tell female leaders to make sure that they take care of their wellbeing because you cannot be a good leader if you are not healthy. Health and fitness are a huge part of my life for that reason.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

1. Be willing to speak up as a champion for inclusion when you witness difficult situations or exclusionary behaviors, bias, and discrimination.

2. Hold group discussions and treat the team like a democracy. Give each person an opportunity to voice their opinions and listen to what everyone has to say.

3. Communicate, communicate communicate! I fell in love with building bc it is a collaborative activity. When working on large projects, many people have to coordinate to get the job done so communication is essential.

4. Reflect and evaluate your actions bc the best leadership is to lead by example!

5. Be strong, never back down, and never cry. Remember it’s still not easy, and women still have to work harder, but women who get to leader roles, also need to help other women!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful to my parents because, I would not be the person I am if it were not for them. My dad is from Puerto Rico and my mom is first generation Italian, so I was raised with the old-school mentality. This taught me integrity and helped me become thick-skinned and independent.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe so. I have had the pleasure of working on some high-profile bridges like the Goethals and the George Washington Bridge. Millions of people cross structures every day that I helped build!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to start a movement called “Hard Had Cam Daily Reports”. Since paperwork on the job is typically a burden (I know my super complains about it) I think we should do a video instead. I propose we strap a go pro onto our hard hats and video tape our daily reports!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My slogan is “Breaking Barriers One Bikini at a Time”. One of the reasons I become Miss NYC is to bring positive awareness to women in my field. I know that my two passions (modeling and construction) are two seemingly different ideas, but they have shaped me into who I am today! Even though I continue to meet stereotypes, I hope to inspire women to understand that beauty, brains and skill are qualities to be embraced and celebrated!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would like to meet Gretchen Carlson because she is a beauty queen (like me) and a powerful woman. I would like to know what kind of advice she would have for me as a fellow woman in a male dominated field.

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