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Northeastern’s Cassandra McKenzie recognized by city of Boston as ‘trailblazer’ for women in construction

Headshot of Cassandra McKenzie.
Cassandra McKenzie, associate vice president of Real Estate and Capital Projects at Northeastern University, was recognized as a “trailblazer.” Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Cassandra McKenzie says she never thought of herself as a “trailblazer.” 

But as a woman of color in civil engineering who leads a team of 100 full- and part-time employees responsible for constructing and maintaining buildings across Northeastern University’s global network, McKenzie has certainly earned the trailblazer accolade.

The city of Boston thinks so, too — awarding McKenzie the Inspectional Services department’s Women in Construction Trailblazer Award.

“If I think about being a woman of color in the construction industry … leading projects for a major university, I guess that is leading the way,” McKenzie says. “I want to create a path for others to just bring themselves to work — whatever that might mean for them — and for it to not just be accepted, but appreciated and highlighted. Because whenever we’re dealing with any kind of challenge, the more diverse opinions we have to focus on the challenge, the better the outcome.”

McKenzie is associate vice president of real estate and capital projects for planning, real estate and facilities at Northeastern. She oversees a team of employees and project managers responsible for the design and build-out for the university from Boston, Oakland, London, Vancouver and everywhere else across the 13-campus global network.

McKenzie was honored by the city of Boston’s Inspectional Services department in a ceremony at City Hall on Thursday celebrating Women in Construction. 

This is actually McKenzie’s second stint working for Northeastern. In fact, she kind of does things in twos around here — she earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees from the university, and her two daughters are Huskies. Her husband is also a Husky.

After many years as a civil engineer in the private sector, McKenzie began working for the university in 1999 as a project manager for design and construction. 

“I loved it,” McKenzie says. “I loved construction, and for me Northeastern was the epitome of being in construction because the first master plan that Northeastern had done was launched and within 10 years we built all that was identified in that master plan.”

That means that McKenzie’s fingerprint is on the entire West Village, Davenport Commons, International Village, ISEC, the ISEC pedestrian bridge and Carter Field on the Boston campus, as well as work on university properties around the world.

“I enjoy working with visionaries,” McKenzie says. “I enjoyed working with faculty that have these visions and hearing about their research and thinking ‘How can I help make the space where they try to do that?’”

In 2020, McKenzie took a job as executive vice president for real estate at MassDevelopment, the state’s development finance agency and land bank, overseeing the redevelopment of many of the state’s public hospitals and the development of the former Fort Devens

It was just in time for the pandemic and, with development halted, the agency’s focus switched.

“We were busy — really busy,” McKenzie recalls. “We were working hard, meeting virtually with various towns and municipalities just trying to keep the lights on and small businesses open, however we could.”

Then in 2022, McKenzie received a call from Kathy Spiegelman, current chief vice president and chief of planning, real estate and facilities at Northeastern and McKenzie’s mentor. 

Spiegelman was seeking advice on how to merge the Planning and Real Estate and Facilities Management departments into PREF. After several conversations, however, McKenzie was not just offering advice; she was offered a job. 

“I wasn’t considering coming back, I wasn’t even thinking about it, frankly,” McKenzie says. 

But, McKenzie says, “who would turn down working for their mentor?”

Spiegelman praised McKenzie. 

“Her leadership on campus here in Boston and for the growing Northeastern global property portfolio has been marked by the value she places on diversity, collaboration and innovation,” Spiegelman says. “This is evident in her work with her Northeastern colleagues and her work with others in the construction and real estate industries. She is a great partner and a wonderful mentor to the members of her teams. I learn from her every day.”

McKenzie also pays it forward. In addition to mentoring other Northeastern employees, McKenzie is on an advisory board for professional women in the construction industry. 

“I think my strength is developing teams and developing people,” McKenzie says. “For whatever reason, I have this knack for seeing a team and the strength of each person and how we could put them together to create this team. I just enjoy mentoring people and developing people and guiding people.”

Her strength in team building reflects her commitment to community. Asked what her advice would be to women — and particularly women of color — entering the construction industry, McKenzie says “find your community.”

“Whether it be your professional community or your personal community,” McKenzie adds. “I think all the small communities that I’ve had have helped me stay afloat.”

“We try to make sure that people support each other because we are challenged every day, we have so much work — the university is moving at lightning speed and because we are responsible for space — we have a huge workload,” McKenzie continues. “So we have to be supportive, both mentally and sometimes physically.”

And although McKenzie says she was surprised by being named a “trailblazer,” she considers it an honor. 

“Ultimately, I’m honored,” McKenzie says. “I’ve been working in this field for a while. I never thought of myself as a trailblazer, but it’s great.”