The 50th anniversary of women’s arrival at Union features a year-long celebration of women and their contributions to the College, their communities and the world.
Sabrina Rau Kanner '80 majored in English at Union College before moving on to a career with Brookfield Properties. Now executive vice president of design and construction, she oversees design and construction projects in the U.S. During her tenure with Brookfield, she has played a key role in the construction, design and development or redevelopment of over 40 million square feet of signature Brookfield projects. These include the World Financial Center, Brookfield Place, 300 Madison Avenue, Bay Adelaide Centre, the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center after 9/11 and currently, Manhattan West. Sabrina is a member of National Academy of Construction and WX. She sits on the Board of Directors of the New York Building Congress (treasurer), The Salvadori Center (chair), The Opus Group, The Regional Plan Association, Urban Green Council (secretary) and Cedar Realty Trust. She also serves on the Board of Trustees of The National Building Museum (secretary) and The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. She enjoys reading, hiking, skiing and spending time with her two children, Michael and Hayley.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?
The most rewarding and challenging aspects of my career and volunteer activities are always people-related. Early in my career, there were significant cultural and personal obstacles to overcome in order to advance. The culture was pervasively unsupportive of women. A favorite example: as I was promoted to project manager in the ‘80s, a colleague told me that he disagreed with my promotion because I was taking a job away from a man who was ostensibly a breadwinner for a family. With this logic, the most powerful CEO would have to be the man with the most children! Infuriating! Thankfully, there were shining exceptions to the culture and, like many of my peers, I persevered and eventually thrived. Easily the most rewarding aspect of my career is teaching and mentoring young people to become the best they can be. Enabling the expansion and growth of a person is genuinely a remarkable and even thrilling process – like nothing else. I highly recommend it should you want more happiness in your professional life.
Who inspired/inspires you, both professionally and personally?
Early in my career, I was fortunate to have a wise mentor, Otto Blau. With his guidance, I was able to find the confidence to believe in myself. His gift of acknowledging my contributions was fundamentally formative to my career. He was also married to a doctor and provided a clear example of how to successfully balance the personal and professional aspects of life. Later in my career, I had the pleasure of meeting Beverly Willis, an eminence in the design and construction world. Beverly was an accomplished builder decades before I started my career and faced – and faced down – gender discrimination in an extremely male-dominated industry. She founded the Beverly Willis Architectural Foundation (BWAF), which creates a forum to acknowledge, respect and value the contributions of women to the building industry, and thereby improving the industry for women to come. Her energy and perspective at 91 are a guiding force to me now. Her ability to use her personal strengths to improve a flawed culture – and create something positive from something negative – is something I admire and try every day to emulate.
What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?
It is important to take the time to find your passion and your voice, and then use them with confidence. There will be times when you find yourself challenged; don’t be defeated, move into problem solving mode and be creative. There will be times when you will be unfairly confronted by opposition for no rational reason; allow your frustration to motivate you positively. Don’t succumb to defeat.
What was your most formative experience at Union?
Being a founding member of the first sorority at Union, Sigma Delta Tau, was a surprisingly expanding experience. As a somewhat disparate group, we needed to learn to find consensus as we negotiated with Union’s administration for our housing. As very young women, we interviewed national Greek organizations, considering the pros and cons and culture fit at Union. We learned to hire and fire cooks, fundraise and support philanthropic causes, organize successful (and unsuccessful!) parties – all without precedent or examples. We created our own governance structure, created house rules to foster respectful cohabitation, and generally broke a lot of new ground. While this was all instructional, I also met some of the best friends in my life, many of whom I would probably not have engaged with if not for joining the creation of this chapter of SDT.