Subscribe to Email Updates

Bridging Cultural Gaps

Bridging Cultural Gaps, Chitra Foster

Growing up in India and southern Africa, my career path was shaped by the world around me. A desire to help provide basic services to the poor was a primary motivator. I had an affinity for science, and my father was a structural engineer. So, when it came time for me to pick a career, I tried to find the most effective way to apply my talent to improving underserved communities.

This ultimately led me to earn my master’s degree in engineering with a concentration in water and sanitation. Soon thereafter I began my career working on development projects in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Because of my nomadic upbringing and early career, I learned to be multicultural and multidisciplinary. I had to learn to rapidly read the business and cultural norms and find ways to bring consensus on sometimes highly political and contentious water projects. Having fluency in bridging cultures has helped me transition to new geographies as well as career paths.

A decade of working on foreign-donor projects came at the cost of missing out on experience in construction, as most donor aid in that era was focused on master planning and capacity building. Since I really desired hands-on construction experience, I made a midcareer switch to work in construction — primarily on design-build projects, a project delivery method that was gaining popularity in the early 2000s in the municipal water industry.

“Traditional” municipal project delivery had contractors on one side of the table and engineers on the other, with checks and balances in place to make many parts of the project delivery process competitive. With legislative progression, these traditional “adversaries” could find themselves on the same design-build team and needing to collaborate to bring about a project successfully. This was a context in which I could thrive.

As an example, one of our most recent projects is a new water treatment plant in Wichita, Kansas. Currently, the city relies on a sole treatment plant to provide drinking water to the entire Wichita area, meaning that if the plant fails, there are no other options. This is a hugely important project for Wichita and is one of the largest such infrastructure projects in the nation. To stitch all the ideas together requires relentless communication and a respect for where people are coming from, both professionally and personally.

Over the course of my career I have seen many changes to the industry — it has become much more diverse. There is always more we can be improving to help our industry adapt so this diversity can thrive. Young women coming into this profession have a larger collective voice than they’ve ever had. This growing center of mass keeps pushing us older professionals to be better — to listen more carefully, think more innovatively and help the smartest ideas win. I love that!

When I’m asked about being a woman or a minority in the profession, I’m often asked about obstacles. I have been fortunate to have always found incredible mentors and few negative experiences. I am careful not to assume that this is everyone else’s experience, nor that certain obstacles have magically dissolved. And this truth has never been clearer. It’s vital to our business success that those new to the profession speak up, seek mentors and be captains of their own careers — and it is the duty of seasoned professionals to listen courageously and support their growth.

Leave a comment

Chitra Foster
Written by Chitra Foster
Chitra Foster is a civil engineer at Burns & McDonnell, specializing in design-build delivery. Throughout her more than 25-year career, she has worked and lived around the globe.

Related posts

Stay Focused on Long-Term Strategies to Build Successful Projects
Stay Focused on Long-Term Strategies to Build Successful Projects

Prompting countless project shutdowns or delays and the threat of looming layoffs or furloughs, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic...