ASU alum builds rewarding construction career from ground up
Use of construction skills to improve lives in her community earns Tiffany Sharp a place on the Phoenix Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list
Sometimes the path to a rewarding career is straightforward, and sometimes it has many roadblocks and detours along the way.
For Tiffany Sharp, principal and founder of general contractor Sharp Construction, forging her way into the male-dominated Phoenix construction industry establishment was especially challenging, but has made her success all the sweeter.
Sharp has been recognized as one of the Phoenix Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 for 2021. Chosen from nearly 450 applicants, the construction management alumna from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University will be honored at a virtual event on Aug. 5.
“Once people realize you’re off on the right foot and making headway, that’s huge,” Sharp said. “I’m thankful for the recognition and I think it’s going to push us in the right direction.”
Finding her place in construction
Sharp’s journey began when she started exploring different majors as an undergraduate student at ASU. Early on, she had an interest in bringing buildings to life, but she found architecture and structural engineering to be too narrow in their focus. What she wanted was a role that took her from a building project’s conception to its completion.
Equipped with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies — which included forays into architecture and structural engineering as well as art and business — and a structural engineering internship with TOR Engineering in Flagstaff, Sharp sought out her true calling.
She got a taste of what she was after as a project manager with the custom residential construction company Platinum Companies. She got to see whole projects through from start to finish.
“Being part of the project at the very beginning stages and then being able to see it through is what I found fed my hunger,” Sharp said. “I knew this is where I needed to be.”
Then the Great Recession hit, and the housing construction market tanked along with the rest of the economy.
Sharp managed to survive the layoffs during that unfortunate time and, as one of only a handful of employees remaining, was able to gain some unique work experience.
“I was involved in every facet of the company, which really put me in a position to be successful moving forward,” she said. “These were things that a standard construction project manager wouldn’t have typically been introduced to.”
Sharp was then ready for a new challenge in the commercial construction industry. She sought out a construction project manager position at Intel that had eluded her over the years. The third time the position opened up, Sharp decided she needed to get creative. She figured out how to get in touch with someone by decoding the company’s email address format. Thirty minutes later, she was on the phone with the hiring manager and getting called in for an interview. By the next week, Sharp had the job. It turned out her resume was being rejected because she didn’t have a construction degree.
That changed once she was on board at Intel. In addition to offering Sharp opportunities to lead projects like the construction of a 385,000-square-foot clean room facility and revamping the interior of Intel’s Chandler campus, Intel also supported her graduate studies.
Sharp returned to ASU to earn her master’s degree in construction management at the Del E. Webb School of Construction, part of the School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools.
“The classes I was taking fit really well with my career at the time,” Sharp said. “Intel and ASU had some amazing synergy. There were a lot of things we were doing at Intel that ASU was leveraging. The foundation I got from ASU led me down a path in which I could be successful in any project.”
That foundation — strengthened by courses in accounting, management and business — would soon become even more valuable than Sharp had realized.
After more than four years of learning from excellent mentors and gaining new skills at Intel, a new opportunity knocked on her door.
Platinum Companies, where she had worked during the recession, was expanding again and looking for someone to take over the company after the current owner retired. At the time, Sharp was also looking into construction project management opportunities with Google and Facebook. Securing offers from all three, she chose Platinum Companies.
“The opportunity to own or buy into the company and have that leadership position was ultimately where I wanted to go,” Sharp said.
After several years at the company — and rising to the position of president — the pull of leadership was still there.
A big risk pays off
While she valued her time and experiences at Platinum Companies, Sharp decided to start her own company, giving her the opportunities to set her own path and develop her own business culture.
Sharp remembers being scared when she walked away from a great career at an excellent company and into the unknown.
“I walked into the commercial construction industry unheard of with nobody to leverage. I just said ‘I’m going to do it,’ and I did it,’” she said. “Four years later, we have 50 employees and we’re bringing in some significant projects.”
One of her favorite projects is 16 North, a retail space near 16th Street and Bethany Home Road in Phoenix. Her company turned a Shasta Pools location — complete with in-ground pools and spas — into a modern neighborhood retail and office space.
“When you went out onto the job site, it was filled with pools and spas in what was going to be the future parking lot,” Sharp said. “The demolition on that project was just amazing and fun to watch. It was a very interesting project that turned out beautifully.”
Even in the best of times, it isn’t easy for a new construction company to establish itself in Phoenix, but Sharp’s company also had to contend with a global pandemic within its first few years.
“In March of 2020, I had four phone calls in a two-hour period where we lost $30 million worth of work and a project underway that completely stopped and shut down,” Sharp said. “Everything we were doing at the time was office, retail, restaurants and hospitality and our entire market went to sleep overnight. That was probably the hardest thing I’ve dealt with in my entire career.”
But as a trained problem-solver, Sharp adapted. The company survived by pivoting to industrial construction work — the only market that was thriving at the time.
Now, the construction market in the Phoenix area is booming again and is presenting new challenges with rapidly fluctuating steel and lumber prices and a shortage of materials.
With a variety of construction projects under the company’s belt, Sharp Construction is still looking to firmly establish its niche in the industry. Upcoming projects will focus on multifamily, office and industrial work. And Sharp says her team is ready to explore the possibilities in those areas.
“We’re still trying to figure where we fit in the construction market,” Sharp said. “I think as we continue to complete projects we’ll have a better idea of where we’re going.”
Advocating for women in construction
“I know there are so many young girls out there who want to go into construction and engineering fields but they’re scared,” Sharp said. “I want to help pave that path and make sure they know they can do it. And not only can they do it, they can thrive.”
When Sharp joined the construction management graduate program in the Fulton Schools, she was one of only a handful of female students. And while it has been a difficult road to prove herself in a male-dominated field, she has had support along the way.
Allan Chasey, a former program chair in the Del E. Webb School of Construction who has now retired and is an emeritus professor, was one of Sharp’s biggest supporters at ASU.
“I think I was only one of two females in the construction and engineering group at ASU, and (Chasey) was really understanding of the challenges that we were confronted with,” Sharp said. “He tried to encourage women to join the program and he encouraged women who were in the program to continue and prosper.”
Sharp spoke to a construction management class last year and hopes to get more involved in mentoring and encouraging the next generation of women in engineering by telling her own story.
As a professional, she had to prove her value to many people in the industry, though she says it was harder 15 years ago than today as the industry has begun seeing more diversity among its ranks.
Sharp says she still encounters people who are not open to doing business in construction with a woman, but she’s not letting that get in her way.
“This is just one of the challenges we have as women who are breaking into an industry that women aren’t typically in,” Sharp said. “I think the positions I have been put in because I had to prove myself are reasons why I am successful today. Even if it was challenging, it was worth it.”
Tiffany Sharp’s building blocks for success
Goals: Be very specific about what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to get there. You have to manage the completion of your goals: Look at them, make sure you have focus and put in the right efforts.
Mentors: Find leaders in your industry or individuals you value and who will give you the right advice. Try to hold monthly meetings, have productive conversations and review your goals with them.
Networking: Get out there and build relationships in the industries you’re trying to get involved in. Relationships are so important. You never know where those relationships are going to lead you or what they’ll do for you in your future. That was something I learned way too late.