The Question That Defined a Career

Joanna Szymel (EMDC ‘20) talks about launching her own construction and consulting firm as an EMDC student, thanks in part to a professor's simple comment.

Joanna Szymel (EMDC ‘20)A twist on a familiar saying helped Joanna Szymel determine the next stage of her career.

As a new student in Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program in 2018, Szymel found herself at a fork in the road on her career path. If she took one route, it would lead her to work with a large construction firm, while the other would have her start her own business. Aware of her struggle, one professor asked her a seemingly simple question: Does a leopard change its spots?

The question made her pause.

Szymel answered that leopards can change the way they hunt, but not their spots. She realized the same was true for her. She had always considered herself an entrepreneur at heart, and she realized this was now an opportunity to be true to herself.

Szymel used the lessons she was learning in the EMDC program to prepare to launch her own construction and consulting business focusing on commercial projects in multifamily units, healthcare facilities, offices, student housing, and senior living communities.  

When it was time to name the company, she thought back to the professor’s question and named it the Guepard Group – using the French word for leopard.

Szymel (EMDC '20) launched the company while still in EMDC, and so far has seen success. She's worked on a wide range of projects, from office renovations and doctor's office build-outs to kitchen overhauls and house additions. Her largest project to date was an Addison City Villas Condominium conversion. The $7 million project featured a 38-unit apartment building that was converted into 22 luxury condominiums as part of the Chicago Partnership for Affordable Neighborhoods. The building was featured in an episode of HGTV's show, "What You Get For Your Money."  

“That was a defining project for me, not only because it was featured on TV, but because it was making a difference in people’s lives,” Szymel said. “The affordable units we provided were for working professionals in the city, and it sparked interest on how to do it better and on a greater scale to provide a bigger impact for the community.”  

For that and the projects the Geupard Group tackles, Szymel leans on her EMDC education.  

“From spreadsheets to the jobsite through professional networks, in every aspect of my business, I apply lessons from the EMDC program,” she said.  

That includes the development of ethics policies and the creation of standard operating procedures to support them, as well as practical lessons on project financing, business strategies, and business law. She also extracted lessons on leadership and how to be a conduit for change in the industry, and is using her business as a platform to fight against stereotypes about women and women-owned businesses in the construction industry.  

EMDC was transformational for Szymel. That's why she highly recommends it to anyone looking to accelerate their own career growth.  

“If you are serious about your future and your career in the construction industry, the EMDC program is the next step,” she said. “The knowledge and experience you will gain will earn you a level of respect from your peers and colleagues in the industry that is unparalleled.”

McCormick News Article