Renovation Specialist Jean Brownhill on Embracing Diversity and Realizing Dreams

Joan Brownhill, Founder and CEO of Sweeten, a service that matches people with renovation projects to general contractors.
Joan Brownhill, Founder and CEO of Sweeten, a service that matches people with renovation projects to general contractors. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.

Trained as an architect, Jean Brownhill is the Founder and CEO of Sweeten, a free service that matches people with major renovation projects to the best general contractors, offering personal support until the job is done. She has 15+ years of experience in residential and commercial architecture, construction, project management and systems, and while working in Global Architecture at Coach, Brownhill won the company’s Chairman’s Award for the creation of web platforms for construction of stores worldwide.

Brownhill received a Bachelor of Architecture from Cooper Union and was one of nine recipients of the prestigious Loeb Fellowship in 2011 from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she developed Sweeten. She is one of only 11 African-American female entrepreneurs in the US to raise more than $1M in venture capital. Jean has been named “The Contractor Whisperer” by New York Magazine and one of the “Most Innovative Women” in Inc.’s “Game-Changer” issue for bringing trust and technology to renovation. In her interview with Julia Gamolina of Madame Architect, Brownhill talks about her drive to ensure that the online platforms for architecture are built by those who care about it, her drive to embrace inclusion and diversity at every corner and scale of the company, and her drive to realize all people’s dreams for the most intimate spaces in their lives.

Julia Gamolina: How did your interest in architecture first develop?

Jean Brownhill: I have dyslexia, so anything with writing or reading I wasn’t that excited about. My high school guidance counselor first told me that I should look into architecture. That was the first time I had heard of the profession; no one in my community in Connecticut was an architect.

I wish I could say it was immediate love [laughs] — it was not immediate love, but I was indeed interested. My mom found the Cooper Union, where every student received a full-tuition scholarship at the time. That really changed things — we had no money for me to go to college, and I couldn’t believe anyone could go for free.

What did you learn at the Cooper Union?

I learned everything there. Most importantly, I learned how to be inquisitive and thorough in your curiosity. I still work with Cooper Union today and fundamentally believe the vision that the school sets out.

Before starting Sweeten, you worked as an architect for almost ten years. Tell me about this time.

I first worked for Elizabeth O’Donnell — she had a practice doing high-end residential here in the city, so I primarily focused on interior renovations. Then I moved to a slightly larger firm doing houses out in the Hamptons. Houses in the Hamptons are like beautiful bespoke 10,000-square-foot pieces of furniture. They’re so well-detailed.

I then worked at Coach, where we did every scale — ground-up buildings all over Asia, small interior renovations here, mall spaces, and such. Part of the reason I went to Coach was to see architecture at the speed of fashion. When you’re working on very high-end residential projects, they tend to go on for a while, and retail is as fast as signing a lease and getting the store open in weeks. You also learn a different notion of architecture because the company is looking at its spaces as cost centers that are there to drive sales. The commoditization of it is a totally different thing to think about.

Jean Brownhill on site.
Jean Brownhill on site. Image courtesy of J. Brownhill.

How did the first seed of the idea for Sweeten come about?

I was working at Coach, with a corporate salary, and that allowed me to buy a house in Brooklyn. I was really excited to renovate, especially after spending so many years renovating other people’s homes. When taking on your own though, you quickly find out that when you don’t have a multi-million-dollar budget, it’s a really different experience. A lot of the service level components that an architect provides, like helping people navigate the process, define their scope, find a general contractor, do the CA work — all of that stuff is completely missing for people whose budgets are $100,000 or less because architects can’t afford to take that work on. The renovation process was thus very challenging for me.

At the same time, at Coach, I saw early on that they had some real inefficiencies within the construction group as we tried to build stores around the globe. The way in which we were communicating that fleet of stores to the rest of the company wasn’t effective. When a store would open, for the architecture group that bit was over, but for the rest of the company, it was just beginning.

I pitched my boss that I would build a website to help hand over information from our store architecture group to the rest of the company. He essentially said he was fine with it as long as I kept doing my regular job. I then went and pitched the same to the COO of the company, who gave me the green light. I got partners on the development side, put a stakeholder committee together, and built this website in nine months. The day that it launched, it was a wild success. A week later, the site went down for basic site maintenance, and people were calling my desk screaming about how critical it was to their business [laughs]. From there, I got certified in information architecture and continued to build websites that helped our construction and our architecture group become more efficient.

How did you get the confidence to pitch the COO before beginning to build? I know a lot of young women that have great ideas every day but don’t act on them for fear of not being heard.

I would love to tell you that I just stormed in there and that they listened to me [laughs]. What I actually did was work insanely hard to document the inefficiencies of our system, including our data storage. It was causing issues across our department, with a ripple effect of lessening the company’s productivity. I built my case of the challenge, then presented my idea for the solution.

Look what the Internet has done to other hierarchical, creative industries … If we believe in the built environment and what our spaces look like, then the people who care about it should be building the platforms — not people who just understand the technology.

Now that I know the origin story, Sweeten could not be a more perfect combination of your renovation challenges and your extra work at Coach.

Yes [laughs]. Here I was going through my own renovation and developing this whole new skill set at work. I knew the distributive power of the Internet and what you could do with it, and I had a passion for architecture and could see that there was a customer out there that I felt connected to. There are so many hardworking people out there who save their money to buy a home and want to spend more money to make it really a place that represents them, and I wanted to help them.

Sweeten is a free service that matches homeowners, business owners and the design trade to the best vetted general contractors, providing support until the project is done, which is what I wish I’d had for my own renovation!

A kitchen renovation by Sweeten
A kitchen renovation by Sweeten. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.
A dining area by Sweeten architect C. Wall Architecture
A dining area by Sweeten architect C. Wall Architecture. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.

When did you leave Coach and focus on Sweeten full-time?

I wish the two were closer together [laughs]. I left my job and was doing some consulting, and also became the general contractor of my own home project for a while. During that time, I started doing various presentations about the power of the internet. I was the Chicken Little to the architecture community, saying, “Look what the internet has done to other hierarchical, creative industries — music, journalism, etc. It undermines the business fundamentals, aggregating more wealth away from the creatives, and leads to a lower quality of work. I believe it will come for architecture as well. If we believe in the built environment and what our spaces look like, then the people who care about it should be building the platforms — not people who just understand the technology.”

Most people thought I was insane, but at one of those presentations, an architect, Reese Fayde, who later became my mentor, came up to me. She didn’t know me at all, but after hearing my presentation, she wanted to nominate me for the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and she did! At this point, I had launched a couple of companies trying to see how I could use technology to get high-quality construction and design resources to regular people. When I got the Loeb Fellowship, it fortified me to say, “OK, I have one more idea that I think might work, and if it doesn’t, I have Harvard at my back, and I’ll be fine.” About a month before I left for Cambridge, I launched Sweeten, and it took off almost immediately.

What do you mean when you say “launched”?

The original site was just basically the value proposition: a landing page that said that if someone posts their project, I will match them to a general contractor and will track that project all the way to completion.

And at the beginning, you were the one doing all that work.

Exactly. I had a form where people posted their project, but after they did, everything was manual. I had a huge Excel spreadsheet, a ton of emails with Google forms back and forth, and was manually tracking the massive puzzle of the contractors’ progress on each renovation. Luckily, I like puzzles [laughs].

Eventually, I hired Sherataun Nuss, who I made a co-founder after about a year. In the beginning, she was running our blog, because content marketing has always been a huge part of our marketing strategy. We kept telling the stories of successful renovations as a way of providing social proof to homeowners and gain their trust.

You were also doing all of this at Harvard.

Yes, I launched Sweeten and would work on it on nights and weekends in addition to a full course load at Harvard. There, I met Preeti Sriratana at the Harvard Kennedy School; he was trained as an architect but went to the Kennedy School for non-profit work. He first came on as an advisor, and when we both graduated in 2013, I got convinced that I should raise a first round of venture capital. That’s when he came on full-time, became a third co-founder, and really helped scale the business. We were able to hire some engineers who built out the back end of the website, automating a lot of the processes.

… if you want to see a difference, you need to fund people with different perspectives. Doing so will manifest different realities.

Sweeten launched in 2011. What have been the significant milestones for you and the company from then until today?

To this day, I remember the moment when someone who I didn’t know posted a project on Sweeten. Up until then, I had either met someone at a cocktail party and convinced them to post their project, or they were a friend of my mom’s [laughs]. When we got that first project from a complete stranger, it was powerful not only because you see your vision manifest, but also because you feel the responsibility of what you’ve done in a way that’s different.

Since then, many of the milestones have been around the team and hiring. We have people now who have been with us from the beginning — some started as interns, and to see their career flourish has been incredible.

Jean Brownhill with co-founders Preeti Sriratana and Sherataun Nuss
Jean Brownhill with co-founders Preeti Sriratana and Sherataun Nuss. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.

Where are you in your career today?

We just launched in Los Angeles, and are launching in Chicago and Miami by the end of the summer. Our goal is to be in all top 35 cities by the end of 2020. That’s aggressive [laughs], but we have been completely heads down, figuring out the product market fit and how to solve this problem. Now, I want us to go out and help as many people as possible.

What have been the biggest challenges in all of this?

Being entrepreneurial, depending on the hour you talk to me, could be the best or the worst. In the beginning, that fluctuation was based on each project, but now that I’m out of the specific details, my focus is getting a group of smart people to work together and stay aligned, and achieve our aggressive goals. This is all challenging! There’s a reason why there’s a plethora of business books about management. Days when we’re all rowing in the same direction, those are great days.

Who are you admiring right now?

There are some interesting green shoots out there, companies that are just starting. They are in the tech and in venture capital space, trying to get more women funded, more black women funded. There is a program called All Raise which is a program trying to get more venture capitalists that are women.

Since 2009, African-American women have received only .0006% of the $424.7 billion total tech venture funding dollars raised, and that’s really frustrating because I truly believe that if you want to see a difference, you need to fund people with different perspectives. Doing so will manifest different realities. It’s frustrating when investors say they are data-and-results-focused which would suggest a meritocracy, but then they fund the same people over and over again! So, I’m admiring the men and women who are starting the new initiatives that focused on moving the needle to change those fundraising stats.

What is your mission? What’s the impact that you’d like to have?

Sweeten is my way of making a more diverse and inclusive world. At every intersection and scale of our company, I really see that mission to embrace diversity imbued, from the team we hire to the general contractors in our network to a wide range of clients (a myriad of age, race, gender, occupation, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings). The common bond is to help people create a space they love, which assumes there is room for everyone and it’s OK for that space to reflect the things that are meaningful to them.

Finally, what advice would you give to those just starting their careers in the built environment?

I’d encourage people to optimize for their obituary. This sounds morbid, but what I mean is, think about the end of your life — who do you want to be and what do you want to have done? In any of these small incremental steps, when you’re thinking, “Will I be a failure? Will I change my career ten times?” Guess what — nobody cares! At the end of your life, that won’t matter. I find so many people that are afraid of the wrong things. I’m terrified all the time, but I’m more terrified of getting to the end of my life and not having lived the full depth of it.

When you start thinking in that bigger and more meaningful way, you really start to make some shifts. When I left my corporate job, everyone thought I was insane. I, on the other hand, thought, “Who cares!” When I looked at the top of the ladder of my corporate path, I realized I didn’t want any of those positions, so why would I keep climbing? I see a lot of people living their lives to prove something to people they don’t even like, and I always think, “Why do you care about those people?” I would advise everyone, both professionally and personally, to think about what’s important to you and to let that be the thing that guides you.