Sweeten's Jean Brownhill Has Ambitious Plans to Fix the Gender Gap in Construction

If you're about to undergo a home renovation, tap into her network of contractors.

portrait of Jean Brownhill next to lumber stack
Photo: Courtesy of Jean Brownhill

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Much like a matchmaker for couples seeking love, Jean Brownhill, CEO and founder of Sweeten, is a matchmaker for contractors and homeowners seeking a renovation. Sweeten (as in "home, sweet home") is an innovative online platform that helps homeowners get paired with general contractors. This service also offers support, advice, and security that a project stays on time and within the budget and provides financial protection for the duration of a project. Brownhill explains, "Homeowners enter the details of their renovation project and are matched with a shortlist of fully vetted, licensed, and insured general contractors, while having access to expert-level support to help bridge the gaps in knowledge and trust." Through Sweeten, the home renovation process is now more personable, efficient, and clear.

Origin Story

Brownhill purchased her first home in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and when the renovation cost rolled in at $125,000, she admits, "It felt like crazy money." Having earned an architecture degree at Cooper Union and spent a decade in the construction and design industry, Brownhill believed she could manage her own remodel project. Long story short, Brownhill says she wasn't ready for what became "a terrible experience." She admits, "Despite my insider knowledge, I still wound up hiring the wrong general contractor. He wasn't a bad contractor; just the wrong one for my particular project." Brownhill realized that even though she came from the same industry and spoke the same language, there were missing pieces between what a homeowner might know and what is actually needed in order to have a successful renovation. So, in 2011, after pairing her challenging experience with her passion for problem solving, Brownhill launched Sweeten.

Lessons Learned

Brownhill says that one of the most inspiring pieces of advice she ever received was this quote from Howard Thurman, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." She goes on to explain that she should have listened to her own instincts and had more confidence in her own expertise in the beginning stages of her business. "I tended to defer to people whose resumes were long, but I knew what was right for my business," she says. Brownhill also admits that in the beginning, like most eager entrepreneurs, she said yes to everything and was extremely busy. She shares this lesson, "Now, the best and most effective way to manage my time is to just say no to a lot more things."

SAW Program

Sweeten's growth might be scaffolding up, but Brownhill has her mind also focused on another section of the construction industry: female contractors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 women made up only 10.9 percent of the construction workforce. And according to the National Association of Women in Construction, less than three percent of professional and management roles within the construction industry are filled by women. As a member of the 2018 Class of Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute, Brownhill started SAW (Sweeten Accelerator for Women) with the goal to lessen this gender gap by supporting and promoting women contractors. "Many women who got into interior design or architecture are looking at the profession of general contractor and realizing that they have all the technical skills," explains Brownhill. "They can read floor plans and they understand construction detailing. They might not have thought of it as a career option because they thought they needed to swing a hammer, but what they just need is to be good at logistics and delegation, client management, client expectations, or communication and documentation."

The Pandemic Pivot

Even successful businesses must continually adapt, but given these unprecedented times in a pandemic, businesses have had to radically shift. Sweeten is no different. "We know that great players are made in the off-season," explains Brownhill, "so we began focusing our efforts on things that would set us up for success when demand returned. Resources were shifted and refocused to speed up various platform enhancements that we began in 2019." Sweeten has been busy on improving the project posting experience, overhauling their marketing automation, building a new machine learning-based algorithm that better matches homeowner and contractor, and a trackable billing system for renovations through their platform.

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