“I’m like, what is engineering?”
As a college student, Carrie Bristoll-Groll, now principal civil engineer and CEO of Stormwater Solutions Eng. LLC (SSE), did not see engineering in her future. Unbeknown to her, civil engineering would quickly become her passion.
“Nobody talks [about] engineers,” Bristoll-Groll said. “There’s no TV shows about engineers. There weren’t role models as engineers when I was a kid.”
Bristoll-Groll pursued her engineering degree as a young mother. The subject checked several boxes. Civil engineering had a math and science focus; it was environmental; it was related to her father’s career; and it offered a faster entry than other careers requiring many years of education. Now, Bristoll-Groll has six children: the first three are her sons Jess, Zach and Harlan; the third is her dog; and the last two are her company, SSE, and her product, StormGUARDen.
The storm water and erosion control industry is not characterized by its products and services, but rather by its professionals. Its engineers, contractors, and other industry experts care about the work they are doing and the impact they have. Bristoll-Groll is a great example of this.
Earning an engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) launched Bristoll-Groll into a high-achieving and successful career. At the start of it, the attention paid to storm water engineering was minimal. Luckily, an internship at the city of Milwaukee allowed her to rotate between the different engineering departments, including public works, which covered infrastructure and water engineering. Specifically, she worked with the new storm water unit, which drew her attention. When a position in the department opened after she graduated, it was a clear choice.
After working for the city of Milwaukee, Bristoll-Groll transitioned to the city of Brookfield, Wis. At the time, the communities in this area were experiencing major floods and were just starting to consider flood control. This challenge offered the opportunity for Bristoll-Groll to manage projects from concept to construction—invaluable experience as a young engineer.
“And after about six years of that, I thought there were some really cool skills that I developed with the city of Milwaukee and the city of Brookfield,” Bristoll-Groll said. “And in the early 2000s, there was a lot of urban sprawl here … people really jumping out of the city and going to the suburbs. I wanted to be able to help them to develop in a smart manner … so in 2002, I started [SSE].”
SSE is Bristoll-Groll’s passion for a number of reasons. The one she speaks of with such care, though, is the opportunity it gives her to mentor young professionals. When Bristoll-Groll began studying engineering, she did not necessarily have a role model in her field or someone to “take [her] under their wing and show [her] the ropes.” Now, she is the role model.
“I take my 25-plus years of experience and condense it down into what matters for them, so they don’t have to learn everything the hard way, but learn and start where I’m at,” she said. “Do it a different way if you like, but at least you know my way of doing it. I kind of had to learn the hard way.”
As a young professional, Bristoll-Groll relied on certain personal relationships for guidance. She admired her father’s work as a geologist for his groundwater remediation company. Now, she turns to her “personal board of directors.” The people on this board include strong women leaders Bristoll-Groll has had in her life, such as two aunts who worked in business; her mother, who owned hair salons; and her grandmother, who owned a restaurant and hotel. She approaches this group when seeking advice as a business owner.
This positive woman leadership helped shape SSE. At the company, the staff is all women, but Bristoll-Groll did not plan it this way. From her experience, many women have characteristics that fuel a dedication to storm water engineering and help them excel in the profession.
“Women usually want to help others,” she said. “It’s kind of that nurturing spirit, and so if you happen to be an engineer and you want to help people and you like water, then it all kind of comes together.”
This interest in environmentalism and protecting water resources is not the only feature that draws women engineers to SSE. It is the opportunity to work under an engineer who has innovative values. One staff member at the company, Cassandra Bence, first met Bristoll-Groll when she was a student at UWM. Bristoll-Groll presented in one of Bence’s classes, and later worked alongside Bence with Engineers Without Borders. After learning about Bristoll-Groll’s work with storm water and water quality, Bence found her career path. Then, when she learned about an opening at SSE, she jumped at it.
Since then, Bence has discovered that not only is she working in her dream profession, but she also has the tools to excel at it. Bristoll-Groll readily mentors and teaches. One piece of advice resonated with Bence-to listen first and listen fully, and then maybe respond.
“She is a very empowered female boss who loves to raise everyone up in the office,” Bence said. “She wants to see everyone improving and growing and sharing knowledge with each other … You feel empowered from her empowerment.”
At her company, Bristoll-Groll has instituted a “pleasant workplace philosophy.” In order to really grow in the workplace as a professional and as a person, Bristoll-Groll encourages her employees to truly enjoy their work, and if they do not, then she wants to help them find a job that they do enjoy.
“If you’re going to come work with me, I really want this to be your passion,” she said. “I really want to go beyond the normal 8 to 5, and that helps me as a business owner, but it also helps the person feel fulfilled and satisfied in what they’re doing.”
Another important feature of this philosophy is a comfortable work-life balance. Employees at SSE do not need to come into the office during regular business hours or even come into the office at all if working from home better suits their schedule. One professional engineer on staff often works at midnight or 2 a.m. because her small children are sleeping. Bristoll-Groll supports this adaptability.
“Even though she’s my boss and that’s our relationship, it’s more like a family here,” Bence said.
After more than 25 years of hard work, Bristoll-Groll can reflect on her accomplishments. SSE began when storm water engineering was in its infancy. Bristoll-Groll had to prove her company had the resources to be successful, and she did it.
“Engineering firms aren’t the corner coffee shop where it opens the doors and people just start showing up,” she said. “You have to have a good reputation along with a track record where people know you and your work and they can trust you.”
Now, SSE has a solid network of clients and a strong staff that is excited about the work it does. While Bristoll-Groll has excelled in what traditionally is a man’s role, she does not feel that her gender has hindered her. Because she is a woman-and a personable woman-she feels that she stands out, and clients and industry professionals remember her.
“It’s also very fast to go through the ladies room when you’re at a conference,” she said.
When Bristoll-Groll is not making an impact on the storm water world, she maintains the work-life balance she values. You can find her kayaking on the river in Milwaukee, hunting with her sons and husband, or riding her motorcycle across the U.S. With her husband and “six” kids in tow, she has a pleasant life philosophy, too.