HEXAH is changing the way Austin looks at STEM and providing a more honest depiction of women in the field.
By Cy White, Photos Ashley Hahn
HEXAH, formerly Civilitude Group, is an Austin-based conglomeration of companies whose purpose is to create housing opportunities for everyone. In their own words, “We are a collective of industry leaders with expertise in engineering, development and investment.”
More than just a company seeking to create communities of equitable opportunity, HEXAH also enlists a brilliant group of incredible women. All at the forefront of some of the most innovative ideation in STEM. Principal Alejandra Flores, Principal and Director of Community Development Nicole Joslin, project engineer Evana Wang and graduate civil engineer Gabriella Archer spoke to Austin Woman about what HEXAH means to them and the greater Austin community.
I am Alejandra, a Principal at Civilitude Engineers & Planners, an Austin-based civil engineering and planning services firm centered around land development for private and public projects.
As a principal, I get to use my passion for problem-solving with my management skills to work on public and private sector developments through the management of site plans, subdivisions, determining the feasibility of projects and coordinating with the City of Austin for permitting and construction of developments.
Tell is a little of your journey to being part of the industry. What inspired you to follow your area of expertise?
I was born and raised in Piedras Negras, Coahuila as the oldest of two . As the only girl, I was always told that I was a bit “bossy” considering my early age!
My dad was born in a very small town (population of 6,000). When he was given the opportunity to go to college, he was trying to decide between becoming an architect or a dentist. Because architects in Mexico are usually a lot more hands-on and are required to do a lot more labor, he decided to become a dentist. My mom went to school to be an engineer.
This is really significant because this is not a career path that women choose; she was the only woman in her graduating class. Her family wanted her to be an accountant, but my mom went against the grain and decided to pick engineering over accounting. Ultimately, she didn’t end up practicing. My parents are opposites, my dad is an introvert, but my mom is a big extrovert. I think that my mother being so outgoing really shaped me and gave me a lot of confidence as a woman.
I gained an interest in math courses over all others in the 4th grade and that really flourished in high school. I took on any and all projects that were related to physics, math and science. I remember going to sleep late because not figuring out a solution to a physics problem would keep me up! This is around the time I became interested in engineering.
How did you get connected with HEXAH?
AF: I had heard that the company had very talented people on their team who work on very significant projects for the Austin community. So when I was ready to make a career move I came to HEXAH.
NJ: I first met HEXAH founder and CEO Fayez Kazi, Civilitude Engineers & Planners President Nhat Ho and Constructinople Principal Eyad Kasemi, when our organizations shared an office space. This was before Civilitude built its current office.
We also worked together frequently. I was with Community Powered Workshop at the time. Civilitude Engineers & Planners served as the engineer on a few of our affordable housing projects. So I had experience with them on the client side.
Once Capital A Housing was formally named an entity, they hired my previous organization to serve as an infill architect. So we kind of went back and forth working with each other. Ultimately, the HEXAH mission aligned well with ours at Community Powered Workshop. Once I was ready to move on from my previous position, Capital A Housing was a natural next step on my career path.
Principal and Director of Community Development at Capital A Housing
I’m currently a principal and the Director of Community Development at Capital A Housing, an Austin-based real estate developer that builds collaborative solutions for our community’s affordability crisis.
Capital A is one of the entities under HEXAH, formerly known as Civilitude Group, and focuses primarily on the development side of projects, nurturing relationships with community activists, neighbors and city officials to ensure affordability projects happen and keep in mind the needs of communities.
Tell us a little of your journey to being part of the industry. What inspired you to follow your area of expertise?
I pursued a degree in architecture because I liked math and art and thought it would be a good way to do both. But I also didn’t really have a clear idea of what architects really do on a daily basis. While I was completing architecture school, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I saw how decisions made about how our built environment is designed can have disparate impacts on certain communities over the long term. Not only in how vulnerable they are to disruptive events. But also how able they are to recover from them.
I wanted to do something to help after the disaster, so I went and volunteered over school breaks gutting houses and doing damage assessments for different organizations in the New Orleans area. This is where I really saw firsthand the results of bad planning. I became interested in how decisions and communities are made.
After graduating, I worked with Architecture for Humanity to rebuild housing in East Biloxi after Katrina. The organization believed that guerilla architecture can be a force for good and architects have a social responsibility. This ethos really aligned with mine.
I also got to work with an interdisciplinary design studio that connected the expertise of engineers, social workers, planners and architects who were all working together toward a common goal. Being in that environment helped me understand different perspectives as well as the timescale of building a really rich community that wasn’t just about building buildings.
In 2008, I moved to Austin and ended up in a corporate architecture firm. There, I gained some good hard skills and hands-on experience. But it wasn’t community driven in the way I was interested in. This is the time I decided to enroll in grad school for planning. I focused on disaster recovery, recalling what I witnessed in Biloxi. I was interested in disaster governance structures and how quickly resources are distributed after a disruption. What I really wanted to know was how much who was making decisions about resource distribution mattered to a community’s recovery and how connected or not they were to the community itself.
After grad school, I ended up back on the Gulf Coast again as a research fellow with Eskew Dumez Ripple in New Orleans. My role was as an embedded community engagement specialist (i.e. coach) working to infuse engagement in the design process of projects at all scales and within the operations of the firm itself. Community engagement is traditionally treated like a niche skill set for architects working on certain kinds of projects like public parks or community centers. It isn’t seen as a part of the traditional design process, especially at a high-design firm like ERD.
There is often a disconnect between the design decision-making process, the culture of a neighborhood and the way people actually live in a community. Everyone’s an expert in the way that they live and in their experience. I believe there is real value in bringing this type of expertise into the design process.
I returned again to Austin after that fellowship ended and started working at the Austin Community Design and Development Center (now known as Community Powered Workshop), a local nonprofit community design center. There, I got to work directly alongside communities on affordable housing projects and community planning initiatives. I served as the executive director for five years. We were able to carve out a method of community design and planning practice to be explicitly antiracist from how we operated as an organization, how we participated in community action and how we supported the power of BIPOC communities.
Finally, I eventually ended up at my current role with Capital A Housing, an Austin-based real estate developer building collaborative solutions for the community’s affordability crisis. Here we are tackling affordability in Austin through the development of mixed-income housing across multiple scales including multifamily and missing middle development types serving everyone from formerly homeless households to market rate.
EW: I was exploring the Land Development industry through another internship in Austin when Civilitude’s Chief People Officer reached out. After some initial conversations with the team, I was interested in the organization’s vision and awareness. The types of projects we do together affect the community around us. That social consciousness was important to me. After a semester’s internship, I graduated from UT and joined the staff full-time.
GA: A friend from a school organization worked at HEXAH; I was connected through her. I ended up interning for them while I was getting my bachelor’s. The internship later turned into a full-time job.
What makes HEXAH the kind of organization that you stand behind?
AF: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a common proverb that many for-profit organizations live by. The truth is that Central Texas is growing by the second. Professionals in the land development industry don’t need to make a huge effort these days to have a good pay day. HEXAH is not a group that settles for this. It’s a group that truly cares for the community. HEXAH has decided to go the extra mile to get involved in controversial topics. HEXAH dares to make changes that others wouldn’t bother to do. It’s a group of revolutionary people.
NJ: I can speak to Capital A Housing specifically. The reason I stand behind the organizations is because there isn’t a direct answer to the problems we are solving. The problems we work on are unique and require community-specific responses that answer the needs of our neighbors. Which isn’t the way developers typically operate. I really enjoy how we think creatively as businesses to find solutions that are very community-driven. Even if they can take more time or be more challenging.
EW: From an internal perspective, I value the company culture. We consistently support one another, especially during moments of stress. We all check in with the people around us and provide encouragement and support however we can.
There is also a unique benefit to working in project teams rather than set teams. We are able to share a wealth of knowledge across the firm that is constantly growing. Having varying perspectives and working styles strengthens our individual abilities and interpersonal skills.
We also have great examples of prioritizing good work life balance. Both HEXAH’s CEO Fayez and Civilitude’s President Nhat embody this daily. They each prioritize their families. While they live somewhat untraditional schedules for engineers, they set an example for the rest of us to work hard and maintain a well-rounded lifestyle. Externally, I am really impressed with how our leadership manages expectations with those that we work with. From clients to co-consultants to city staff. These strong relationships span many different circles and strengthen our ability to help each other out.
I’m a project engineer at Civilitude Engineers & Planners, an Austin-based civil engineering and planning services firm centered around land development for private and public projects.
A project engineer manages all the phases of a project. We navigate the design process among co-consultants of different disciplines, clients, developers and other stakeholders. I also work on the permitting of projects, serving as a liaison with city staff.
Tell us a little of your journey to being part of the industry. What inspired you to follow your area of expertise?
Actually, I didn’t even consider engineering when I first started college; it was honestly the last career choice on my list. I didn’t think I was cut out to be an engineer.
I arrived at UT undeclared (props to the UGS program!) and was exploring a career in environmental science. As I was pursuing these courses, I took several field trips around Austin, which revealed to me the breadth of the City’s and community’s efforts to protect Austin’s natural and developed spaces. I started falling in love with the city and its people – I wanted to be a part of maintaining what is being established while also helping it grow.
Rather than pursuing research, my interest shifted into a more project-based role, specifically Civil Engineering. As I explored the concept of urban planning, I realized the wide impact of infrastructural decisions on a people’s ability to feel connected. I found a passion in learning about the natural and built environment and its intersection with community-building. I found that civil engineering was one of the best ways to explore that idea and see how I could make a direct impact through my work.
We have a dark history in Austin when it comes to infrastructure and equality, and I hope to contribute to its healing process and growth into what we can be.
GA: One of the main reasons I was attracted to working at HEXAH long term was because the organization supported my long-term goals of pursuing both architecture and engineering. It brings comfort knowing that the leadership team respects everyone pursuing their own journey. Not only is this mindset beneficial to HEXAH as a company but also to our individual careers and learning experiences.
It’s astonishing that in 2022, there’s still a dearth of women in STEM fields. What do you believe needs to happen to bring more women into these fields?
AF: In some ways it makes sense. Most women (including me) were raised (biasly) to stay away from STEM fields. However, I believe that once enough women are brave enough to take on leadership positions in STEM fields, it will open roads for many more generations.
NJ: More mentorship would help everyone. But there needs to be mentorship from people who are where you are at each stage of your career and recognition that mentorship will look different at each stage.
As it stands, mentorship is defined too strictly. This can lead to gaps on either end of the spectrum of a career path. For example, there is a gap between your time in school and when you start your career. Which can leave a lot of confusion during those months. But there is also a gap once you reach a certain level of seniority where you may have hit a metaphorical ceiling. So it feels like there is no one else left for you to learn from. This is inaccurate of course. There is always room to learn. But it can be difficult to find what that next level of mentorship looks like.
EW: Women are more than capable of stepping into these fields. Oftentimes, we don’t feel like we can. Imposter syndrome causes that barrier. To this day, I find myself walking (or clicking) into meetings feeling like I do not have much to offer and that it would be easier to stay on mute. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our experiences and our opinions have value in the spaces we inhabit. It is a strength and an honor to contribute to the diversity of thought and practice in all professional fields.
GA: 1: There need to be more mentorship opportunities for women. I really think graduates should reach out more to women who are still pursuing the degree. Provide tips and tricks to succeeding. This industry is still very male dominated. So in a lot of ways the duty is on us to go and empower future female engineers.
2: The people who are in power need to prioritize us, too. The decision makers in the industry, which are still mostly men, need to intentionally prioritize women in the workplace. That means introducing more female engineers to clients, when appropriate, or giving ample space for them to speak in meetings. Don’t just give them uninvolved tasks. Coach them and give them an important role in a project when necessary.
Graduate Civil Engineer
I’m Gabriella Archer, and I’m a graduate civil engineer at Civilitude Engineers & Planners, an Austin-based civil engineering and planning services firm centered around land development for private and public projects.
A graduate engineer is someone who has graduated with a degree in engineering but doesn’t have their license to formally practice yet. I can work on projects, but it’s under the supervision of a licensed engineer. It’s almost like an apprenticeship because I get hands-on learning and can ask questions directly in order to earn my own license in the future.
In addition to my work at Civilitude, I also collaborate with some of the other Hexah entities, such as Constructinople, doing architectural and interior design work for multiple projects and properties.
Tell us a little of your journey to being part of the industry. What inspired you to follow your area of expertise?
I knew what I wanted to do really early on because I grew up around commercial real estate agents and a bunch of interior designers. I also loved watching HGTV and would watch it constantly with my family! Being exposed to experts while being so young promoted a love for construction and residential design.
I’ve also always been passionate about math and science. So I wanted to choose a path that would give me both financial security and allow me to pursue all of the areas I was interested in. Luckily, the University of Texas at Austin offered a dual-degree program for engineering and architecture that would feed all of my passions simultaneously, so I decided to pursue it.
What, if anything, have you seen as an improvement in the STEM environment?
AF: The fact that we are having conversations about improvements in the field is of great importance. It’s just like in the ’90s; we were expecting to have flying cars by now. We’re not there yet, but hell have we made progress! Not only in getting women into STEM fields, but also into leadership positions.
NJ: There is more flexibility in the field. People see value in having varying types of expertise or having different experiences. For example, someone might get a degree in biology and then end up in architecture. It used to be seen as a waste of time. Now it’s seen as valuable. I remember when I was in architecture school my professors used to discourage me from pursuing a minor in sociology. Now I find the combination of these subjects impacting my work every day!
EW: When it comes to networking, I’m seeing more creative ways to connect. Outside of the typical drinks at Happy Hour or golfing. I find that many organizations are creating inclusive environments to meet and greet. Which provides a great foundation for relationship building. As a recent graduate from UT, I am thankful for my time in the Women in Engineering program. This team excelled at preparing and coaching us to find our voice and style before we entered the industry. This posture of confidence helps us to create an inclusive space in any environment.
GA: Since I have been in school, specifically, I saw so many women, people of color and women of color in my classes. Which made me feel more comfortable. It also showed that there are more and more women interested in the field. That it is becoming easier, in some ways, for them to pursue it. I also saw a lot of older engineering literature get updated to reflect what was going on in the industry. For example, a lot of it would use “he” pronouns to describe the person working on projects. They began replacing it with “they,” which was great because these textbooks no longer assumed a man did the work.
How does HEXAH allow you to not only follow your passion, but keep your passion ignited?
AF: It’s one thing to do something you enjoy. It’s a whole other level knowing that what you do has a domino effect. Knowing that by showing up to work you get to contribute in a unique way to create housing for those in need, and knowing that every battle or challenge you go through is for the ultimate good of the community we live in has no price. Being able to see that if you don’t like something about how a system works, you can actually do something about it. Seeing that your voice matters for you and for those around you is something you can’t put a price on.
NJ: I am passionate about creating communities that serve as many people as possible. Before coming to work at HEXAH I used to work at places that built platforms amplifying community voices. This usually meant trying to get developers, city planners and decision-makers to find alignment between our values and their needs while making sure that historically excluded communities get their needs met and dreams realized. Being on the developer side, I can be in on the decision-making process and work alongside the community rather than just engage as window dressing. We want to include all considerations and make this process a more common part of the practice.
EW: 1: The flexibility in the projects that I work on. Our leadership team keeps tabs of my interests and goals. If a potential project aligns, they would offer me the opportunity to get involved. Even as an intern, I could tell that the firm took notice of my interests. They also ensure that I have a wide exposure of different types of projects and clientele, which keeps me learning.
2: The support for my professional development. When I expressed interest in networking and learning more about the field outside of the office, the organization offered me several outlets to pursue those connections. Leadership would make a point to introduce me to people or extend invitations. So we could all have the opportunity to represent the company at different events.
GA: HEXAH keeps me busy! I enjoy being able to jump from project to project, so there is never time for me to get bored.
What is your biggest goal as part of HEXAH?
AF: I want to be part of the change. I want to work on projects that continue to shape the Austin community as is. I want to be able to contribute not only as an engineer, but as an individual.
NJ: To make great places for everyone.
EW: I am here to learn and to contribute. At work and in life, I never want to stop learning and appreciating the people and the world around me. As HEXAH continues to expand and grow, I aspire to soak in the experiences from our different teams. All the while teaching where I am able to and sharing my insights boldly with my team.
GA: To learn, grow and bring joy to those around me!
From your perspective, where do you see HEXAH going in the future?
AF: When I started working at HEXAH, I liked the idea of being a small company. Today HEXAH is no longer the company I started working for. It has evolved for the good and continues to grow with talented people from many backgrounds and with a very diverse skill set. I think HEXAH will continue to grow in this direction and will be seen not only as a company who does development, but one that shapes communities.
NJ: We want to make Austin, as a place, a better community for everyone. We see this in the projects we execute and the ethics of our leadership. But it’s a matter of applying different professions to the vision.
GA: At the rate that we are growing, I look forward to seeing more female principals across entities. (But especially in engineering.) I would love to see HEXAH grow into the company it wants to be.
In your opinion, what is the future of civil engineering, architecture, etc.?
AF: These disciplines work hand in hand already. But I believe they will need to merge a little bit more and include urban planners to the mix. I think these professions tend to be very technical. Which is good for the functionality of our buildings and infrastructure. But I think we could take conversations a step further and be more people and environment oriented.
NJ: In my opinion, the future of architecture is having more social responsibility than the profession has historically borne. Architecture can be at the mercy of the client paying the bills, but that attitude is changing.
EW: Design needs to be more people-focused. We are waking up to the costly infrastructural decisions made over the past several decades that have created generational inequity and pain across the city. The future of infrastructure and design starts with prioritizing community voices to develop best practices. Both for the people that occupy these spaces and for the health of the environment around them.
GA: To see more focus on innovation. The population is growing at such a drastic rate that construction timelines are already struggling to meet the current demand. Because of this, the infrastructure itself is going to have to innovate in terms of materials, for example, to better meet construction needs and supply-chain issues.
I also think we are going to need more innovation because the world is changing. We’re running out of materials, energy, etc., which will change the way we build things. For example, steel is a major component in a lot of construction but that is a limited resource. How can we still construct buildings still if the necessary materials run out?
What is the one thing you want people to truly understand about HEXAH?
AF: We are a lot more than a group who does land development. We are a group of revolutionaries who are willing to go the extra mile for the betterment of the land-development practice. The way our communities live their day-to-day lives.
NJ: There’s independence but value alignment between the companies.
EW: HEXAH seeks to understand our clients’ goals and fights for our clients to do what’s right by them.
GA: We don’t have all of the answers, but HEXAH works endlessly to find solutions to the problems at hand.