Nicole Vaughn

Nicole Vaughn SP'05 is a project manager at RJM Construction in Minneapolis. Photo by Rebecca Zenefski SP'10

Constructing a life

Thanks to the confidence she gained at St. Kate’ s, alumna Nicole Vaughn is making her mark in the construction industry.

By Pauline Oo

NICOLE VAUGHN SP’05 IS NOT AFRAID TO GET HER HANDS DIRTY. In fact, this international business and economics major almost single-handedly gutted her first house and rebuilt it from scratch. Granted, it took five years — but she was a full-time student at St. Kate’s for the last two of those years. “I saw great potential in it,” says Vaughn. “My parents thought I was crazy.”

And they were right. Lesson learned: “I get enough drywall and insulation dust at work already. I don’t want to go home to it. But I could see myself renovating one or two rooms, and maybe resurfacing a cabinet or a floor.”

Vaughn is a project manager at RJM Construction in Minneapolis. She joined the company in September 2012, a few months after St. Catherine University decided to move its interior design program to International Market Square (IMS). RJM won the bid to remodel the new classroom space — and, of course, the company’s Katie played an integral role in the project.

Vaughn’s responsibilities typically begin when the architect’s plans are approved. She figures out all the necessary tasks and materials, plus the timelines to accomplish each task. Her job includes ordering materials, coordinating the work with an on-site superintendent, and keeping close tabs on costs and schedule, plus making adjustments when unexpected issues or complications arise.

“Lots of different people are involved in a construction project,” she explains. “I make sure everyone is going to get everything accomplished in the time frame and within budget. If one part of a project is delayed, we might not get the next done. Delays can be costly.”

Vaughn, who was born in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, is part of a noteworthy shift in the construction industry. Although women still lag behind men in trades like carpentry and plumbing, they are gaining ground in construction management and ownership, according to a Fortune magazine article earlier this year. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 268,809 women-owned construction firms — a 76 percent jump from its 1997 count of 152,871.


Hardhats and technical drawings have been a part of Vaughn’s life since she was a child. Her Welsh father and Italian mother worked at Turner Construction Company while she was growing up.
“I’ve always felt a connection to the industry and wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “In my 20s, I took a bunch of engineering courses at different universities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But nothing really held my attention."

A blueprint of the space.

Photo by Rebecca Zenefski SP'10

Renovating that two-story Craftsman bungalow reawakened her passion for construction — and ignited a business-like curiosity about what drives material cost and supply.

“I fell in love with economics,” Vaughn says. “I started seeing how things were connected and how those ties had a bigger, potentially global impact. For example, when the economy is good, there is a greater demand for labor — from painters and electricians to drywall and tile installers. When the economy is down, companies will not store ma-terials; instead they fabricate materials as they are ordered, which can increases lead times and schedule. Cost goes up for everything.”

Her desire to understand “the bigger picture” led her to St. Kate’s. “It was one of the universities that offered a major in international business and economics,” says Vaughn. Plus it provided the feeling of community she had hoped for in her ongoing academic pursuit.

“St. Kate’s was the first place where I really felt engaged,” she says. “My economics professors were not just teaching us a theory or a process; they were sharing stories so we could grasp what they were trying to teach us. This personal approach made things stick. I could see immediately how a topic was relevant or how a theory applied to real life.”

Soon after she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2005, she got a job offer from Turner Construction — the same company for which her dad was still working. Oakland, California, was her home for seven years. (Her father was attached to the office in Albany, New York.) Vaughn was involved in construction management engineering for public and commercial projects of all sizes — often as the only woman.

“You have to be confident to succeed as a woman in this industry,” says Vaughn, who aspires to an executive position. “You’re always going to be scrutinized more than your male colleagues. But you can’t let that hold you back. You have to be able to go into a room full of men and get your point across without fear.”

Vaughn attributes her courage to the time she spent at St. Kate’s. “This University gave me the confidence to have a strong voice in a male-dominated industry,” she says. “As a project manager, I’m the main point of communication — the person who interfaces with the owner, architect, subcontractors, superintendent and materials supplier. St. Kate’s taught me to speak with confidence and to believe in myself and my skills.”

So, how did Vaughn feel about working on a project for her alma mater?

“I feel really fortunate to be part of it,” she says. “I’m giving back to a place that had a huge impact on my life.”

Pauline Oo is managing editor of SCAN.


Pivoting walls and direct sunlight are key qualities in the interior design program’s home.

Show and tell is easy for St. Kate’s interior design faculty. Their two classrooms in International Market Square (IMS) in Minneapolis are a quick stroll to more than 65 showrooms featuring an extensive array of home and office products — including camelback chairs, recycled rubber flooring and pewter countertops.

“Besides the showrooms, there are many interior designers, architects and industry trade associations with offices in the building,” says Justin Wilwerding, director of the interior design major. “If a student plays her cards right, she could land an internship or job with one of them.”

Pivoting walls

IMS originally was built as a factory for Northwestern Knitting in 1905 — the same year St. Kate’s was founded. The building was renovated in 1985. Junior and senior interior design courses will be held there, in addition to classes for the new Master of Business Administration that begins in spring 2014.

Architect: Kate Yurko, DLR Group
Interior designer: Staci Patton, DLR Grooup
Project manager: Nicole Vaughn SP’05, RJM Construction
Corporate funder: 3M

Student writing on the wall.

Notable studio features

Natural light: The IMS atrium skylight brings fused sunlight into the North Studio, while a row of windows emit light into the South Studio.

Movable pieces: The furniture is mobile, and the walls dividing the North Studio and the South Studio pivot for presentations and exhibitions of student work.

Whiteboard surface: Students can write and share their ideas on all the wall surfaces, including the pivoting walls.

Rose window: St. Catherine’s symbolic identity is etched
on a glass at the main entrance. Its color changes with different perspectives and lighting conditions.

The front entrance

All sidebar photos by Don Wong.