Construction Management Alumna Susan Rozakis Receives Honored Alumni Award
By Alex Flores, Photo by Josef Kasperovich
Click on the image to view a video narrative of the 2022 honored alumna
As one of the first women to graduate from Cal Poly’s construction management program, Susan Kutner Rozakis is an advocate for diversity and inclusion. Before Google, she took on a project leadership role at Stanford University capital projects. Today, her leadership role at Google as the senior director of workplace design and delivery involves creating innovative approaches to high-performance, sustainable, user-focused offices. Rozakis is the College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED)’s 2022 Honored Alumna.
She recently sat down with the college to discuss her reaction to receiving the Honored Alumni Award, her role as a leader at Google, her undergraduate studies at Cal Poly and hopes for future involvement with the university.
For more than 60 years, the Honored Alumni Award has been the highest honor bestowed upon Cal Poly alums. That now includes you. What was receiving that honor like? What does the award signify or represent to you?
This honor has an immeasurable meaning to me. I took a different path than many who go into architecture, construction or engineering. After graduation, I went to work for a general contractor, and a couple of years later became a consultant and worked on the owner’s side. So I lost connection with Cal Poly. The dean reached out to me a few years ago. I was super excited to be back at the university, meet students and learn more about where the College of Architecture and Environmental Design and the university is today. So that was, in and of itself, such a reward for me.
I was speechless when the dean reached out to me and told me I was selected as the CAED Honored Alumna. I’m not speechless very often, but it was an amazing moment in my life. You go through your life, you do your best and learn, and you take that and mentor others. To then be selected as the honored alumna of 2022 from Cal Poly — for which I have so much respect for and having had such an impact on my life — was priceless for me.
During your recent visit to Cal Poly, you participated in the CAED Dean’s Leadership Council (DLC) meeting. What were some of the highlights for you? What discussions or connections were most impactful during both days?
Whenever I visit Cal Poly, it is a very special time for me. Meeting the students, faculty and staff, seeing the level of commitment and the Learn by Doing approach sets the stage for a fantastic time. Hearing from the dean and the faculty about the opportunities as the school goes from quarters to semesters was pretty amazing; the chance to rethink education and classes will set the CAED up for success in the generations to come. It’s exciting for myself and the others on the DLC to know that California is in such great hands.
The following day, I loved the speed mentoring. The students were articulate and interested, so it was a great two-way conversation. Afterward, meeting the other honorees on the alumni panel was nice. That was the first chance I got to meet most of them. It was heartwarming that the dean and the leadership council came; their support was phenomenal.
The ceremony in the evening was magical. Being presented with the award and having my husband (Dave), son (Dan), friends (Ken, Diana) and my boss (Anthony) there was such an honor. I was impressed with the Cal Poly deans & CPSU leadership. Having four women engineers onstage – myself with the CAED dean and the CENG dean with their honoree – was remarkable. They celebrated those of us who were early in the field and pioneers. It shows you how far that industry has come and that Cal Poly has supported it.
Speaking of your recent visit to Cal Poly, what advice do you have for incoming or current students about making the most of their time at Cal Poly?
During the DLC speed mentoring, I told students to study abroad. I recommend that students see different areas and understand the design and construction of places they have learned about throughout their education. I did not have that opportunity, but I wish I did.
I also recommend taking courses in fields you are interested in. I had three classes I could take outside of my major. I took two P.E. classes because I figured it would be fun. It’s not just about learning but also an awareness of wellness and mental health. Part of it is balancing, putting in the hard work, and caring for yourself. Sometimes it might be learning something exciting and taking a class that will round you out. And sometimes, it’s giving yourself time to take it easy to do something different.
– Work on getting practical experience in the summers.
– Do not be afraid to get your hands dirty.
– Do not be afraid to work hard.
– Always put in the extra effort to be prepared.
– Always have a positive attitude.
– Be passionate, coachable and ready to learn.
Starting with your time at Cal Poly, could you summarize your academic and professional trajectory before onboarding your position at Google?
When I was at Cal Poly, our first two years were fully focused on environmental design, and we took classes with all the majors. We took structural design classes with architects and architectural engineering students. We also took textile engineering design courses, designing concrete, steel and timber structures. That was more than most people with a background in construction took at that time. It was a cross-functional education, giving us empathy for working together. It was pivotal to understanding where the different disciplines were coming from, what was important to them and what they were looking for.
I worked summers for Bechtel, on the same project all three summers. My first and last summers were in San Francisco, where Bechtel’s main offices were. And mid-summer, I worked at a job site in Arizona, a nuclear power plant with a wastewater treatment plant. It gave me an excellent learning opportunity. And then I came back and pulled it all together the third summer. It was a pretty cool experience for a 21-year-old woman, though the dynamics of being a woman on a remote site in the late 1970s were very different from what (hopefully) most young women face today.
Focusing on your current role, could you provide insight into your goals and day-to-day tasks at Google? What would you say is the most challenging or rewarding aspect?
I lead a team who designs and delivers Google space in the Bay Area. We work with intelligent, talented and future-thinking people. So much of what we do comes back to diversity and inclusion — how do you pull information together and blend data, knowledge, your experience and other people’s insights to predict where the industry will go?
The different cross-functional groups within Cal Poly CAED are the same type of people I work with daily. So, whether it is architects, contractors, planners or engineers, we look at things through an industry-leading design and construction lens. Technology enables us to push the field and be more innovative. We also focus on the design of our spaces. How are people going to want to work in the future? In pre-COVID days, we worked a certain way. How do people want to return to the office, and what does that mean for the future? I do not know any company, university or government that is not having those same conversations.
I was at my job before this for 17 years and the job before that for 16 years. So, I’m not a person who switches jobs very often. However, I came into this job — as I’ve come into every other job I’ve done — to do the best I possibly can and bring value to the company. I have been lucky to work for companies at Stanford and Google, where the core work improves the world. I came to Google to lead projects for the most amazing global company; I knew it was very user-focused, similar to my Stanford projects. I was asked to lead the team, and I’ve been leading the team now for about five years. My goal was not only to design and deliver great spaces for Google but to build and be part of a great team. I think I met those goals with amazing spaces and a wonderful team.
There is a strong emphasis on user-focused design at Google. Can you elaborate on what that entails and why it is so important?
User-focused design is how a person functions and feels in the space. I designed a building once years ago where we wanted people to downsize from big to smaller offices, and I was worried they would hate it. They ended up loving their new building because we talked to them about what they needed to be successful in their space. The building looked beautiful, but their offices worked for what they needed: areas and furniture that met their space and ergonomic needs, along with natural light and operable windows. The user-focused design brings that all together.
What I found in my career is that people like choices. For example, I talked about natural light and ventilation, which is excellent. However, sometimes natural light can be overwhelming or end up with glare or significant heat gain, too. So, it’s a balance. An extrovert might like to be in an open space in the middle of a building, seeing and talking to people, but there are introverts I’ve worked with who want to have a place where they do not have much noise or many things going on around them. And they may not want to have a large window view. So, it’s about allowing people to go into a space to get their work done one way or another. And sometimes, even minor differences are significant. When I say user-focused design, we start with the people. Then we consider what those people need within a space and how those spaces come together to form a building. Finally, we strive to make a beautiful building. So, it all comes together inside out and outside in.
I learned a lot about neurodiversity recently. And it’s a path that we go on: how to be inclusive, whether designing or conversing with people. That’s a constant learning curve. And from a design standpoint, many patterns or bright light can complicate someone’s concentration ability. There are times when you need to have a place of refuge that is quiet and peaceful.
What do you see next for yourself in your current role? What does that look like within your community and at Cal Poly?
I am looking to spend more time at Cal Poly. I’m very excited, particularly with how things have changed, to see more women, people of color, and others who may not have had the advantages to learn about the opportunities, whether in planning, design, engineering and construction. That is very important to me. I would love to come down to Cal Poly with some of the alums I work with and others at Google and talk with students about how we work together. Professionally, I love working at Google; I love my job. I’m very fortunate to have loved every company I’ve worked at, every team I’ve been on, and every college and school I’ve attended. I want to continue building a positive workplace for my team and others at Google. And hopefully, that is a model others can emulate.
In my profession, working together is essential. It’s vital to become a learning organization that embraces diversity, inclusion, the newest technology and a forward-thinking approach. Sometimes we have to throw out what we have done in the past and approach challenges with a fresh perspective. You must be innovative when you work for a company like Google — and I did it at Stanford as well. I have my team who works with me, but I also have all our vendors. We work collaboratively with project managers, architects, contractors, engineers and planners to bring these spaces together. And that is why I have so much respect for Cal Poly. Because I worked with all those people from the time I was 18 as a freshman in college. I didn’t just get here and become puzzled about working with an architect. I said, “Wow, let’s work together.” It’s the Learn by Doing model. I’m a big fan, if you can’t tell.
I love my career and the opportunity to work with awesome colleagues on all types of projects, including airports, laboratories, commercial kitchens, industrial plants, theaters, shopping centers and residential and office buildings, partnering with local, national and international firms, many of whom have Cal Poly graduates on their teams. I have worked with amazing design firms such as WRNS, Legorretta Architects, Ennead Architects, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, Heatherwick Studios, ZGF, Gensler, BIG, Cody Anderson Wasney, Dowler Gruman, and so many more, along with general contractors such as Devcon, Dome, Whiting Turner, WL Butler, Novo, XL Construction, and others.
Lastly, any final thoughts?
Talk to your family, friends and kids about what you do; that was always eye-opening for me. I think I was one of the first women in the construction management program because I had a dad who taught me critical thinking and talked to me about his job. Then throughout my career, I learned from the teams, vendors and partners I worked with. Pick people in your life who are positive across the board because that will help you be in places where you can grow and learn and keep learning by doing. I have my home family and work family, all of whom are amazing and supportive.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.