When you think of a boutique, what pops into your mind? Probably not a civil engineering firm, but Powers Hill Design is just that – small, homegrown and offering something you can’t get anywhere else. This nontraditional approach to engineering is very reflective of co-founder and president Nisha Powers. Born in India, she came with her family to the United States when she was 9 years old and grew up mainly in upstate New York. Although she conformed to her family’s wishes to major in engineering, she says she felt “boxed in” – so she decided to take some time away and return to India for intensive training in classical Indian dance. “During that time, I realized that I DID love engineering and wanted to go back to it. I just needed to come to that decision on my own,” she says.
With strong faith and a determination to carve out a different route, Nisha is making strides in the engineering world, one typically dominated by men. And along the way, she’s received countless recognitions, including Tri-State Defender’s Woman of Excellence Award, UPN 30 News’ Phenomenal Woman Award, the Ruby R. Wharton Outstanding Community Service Award and a “Top 40 Under 40” recognition from Memphis Business Journal. We are excited to introduce this trailblazer as our newest FACE of Memphis!
What brought you to Memphis?
I met my husband at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where we were both majoring in engineering. He’s a Memphian, and I always joke that he dragged me here. But ultimately, it turned out to be the best thing for me.
Memphis is where I found my son, Lucas. He’s adopted, and I feel the whole thread of my life was God leading me to him. He was born on December 2, we found out about him on December 3, and he was home with us on December 13. He’s 6 now, and I always tell him that he was meant to be ours. I feel that everything else we’ve done in life was preparing us, so we’d be waiting right here for him.
What was the spark that led to opening your own business?
After eight years of working in the corporate arena, I knew God was leading me to do something different. My husband and I decided that I should take a couple of months off and figure out the next step. I let my clients know I was leaving, but that they would be in good hands with my boss and mentor, Steve Hill.
When I sat with one client to explain my departure, he asked if I’d ever considered starting my own firm. I said, “No, I haven’t considered it,” and “No, I don’t want to do it. It’s too much responsibility.” He told me he thought there was a definite need for my service in the community, and he offered to give me my first project – and space in his building, rent-free! He also suggested I talk to Steve about it. When I sat down with Steve to share the client’s suggestion and ask for feedback, his response was, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do that.”
We discussed it with our spouses, got a plan together and took the plunge. We always say we packed each other’s parachute and jumped.
Can you expound on the idea of your nontraditional approach to engineering?
Most engineers are most comfortable with the technical side of the industry. I am motivated by the human side of the business. When you can add that dimension to engineering, it changes the service completely.
The firm I worked for was predominately white and male, which is what you usually find in engineering. Just looking from the outside, I’m already the oddball as an Indian and as a woman. Opening my own firm gave me a way to address engineering differently, from a female perspective, from a more intimate relationship perspective. That’s really what it’s all about for me: to be able to develop strong relationships with my clients and the community we serve.
Since we are a small firm with eight people, Steve and I are involved in every project. There is nothing that goes out of this door that Steve and I have not been completely engaged in.
Powers Hill Design is a boutique firm that offers civil engineering with a focus on the community. We find the community challenge and figure out a way to address it in a way that is human.
What advice would you give to girls considering a career in engineering?
Don’t say anything is off the table. Consider everything as possible. Ask for help. Carve your own path; there is no defined path for you. I can point to my own life and the circuitous route I took to get here. I’m the child of an immigrant who took the path less traveled. If I can, there is no reason you can’t.
What projects has Powers Hill handled that illustrate the idea of a boutique civil engineering firm?
The Overton Square Garage Detention Basin was part of the redevelopment of the Square and addressed flooding in the area. When developers decided to do the three-story garage, we were able to provide an innovative design for a detention basin under the structure to alleviate decades of stormwater flooding that had impacted those who lived in the area.
Another is the Main-to-Main Multi-Modal Connector Project, which was a part of the Big River Crossing. The funding was for a 12-mile corridor between Main Street in Memphis and Main Street in West Memphis, including Harahan Bridge. Our part was the Memphis section to the Harahan Bridge, addressing much-needed improvements for pedestrians. It was a special project because each section we did had its own environment, culture and style of usage.
More recently, we were selected to work on a solution to end overflow parking for the Memphis Zoo on the Greensward. The selection process was the first of its kind, where the city allowed the public to participate in interviewing the shortlisted firms to do the project. I wanted the project for our firm because it would require an understanding of people’s feelings and experiences. It would mean taking two entities who had been at odds for so long and giving them an option that they both could live with. I also wanted it because of Lucas. During the interview, I said that I wanted to take my son to the zoo and the park and never have him know the animosity people felt over this issue. In years to come, I want him to go from place to place and never realize there was a problem because the solution is so cohesive.
Tell us about the philanthropic organization you are most passionate about.
I am currently the co-chair of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis (WFGM). We raise money to fund organizations that align with our vision and mission: to help women become self-sustaining through philanthropy, leadership and collaboration. We take a two-generation approach. You can help a child, you can help a mom, but when you’re helping both, you are moving a household into a different realm. We are currently in our last year of the Vision 2020 effort, which has us laser-focused on reducing poverty in Shelby County’s poorest ZIP code (38126) through the programs we support.
Of the organizations the Women’s Foundation supports, the University of Memphis’ Girls Experiencing Engineering is very dear to my heart because I want to see more girls in the male-dominated field of engineering. The program exposes middle and high school girls to engineering in summer camps with engaging activities. I speak to the girls at the camp every year because I want them to know what’s possible.
Someone once told me if you can get your personal life, your professional life and your community life to be congruent, you will be a much happier person. I think about that in how we invest our philanthropic time and effort at Powers Hill. To me, WFGM is the best investment for us because it aligns our personal and community life with our work. In addition, our team of eight decided to adopt a family in ZIP code 38126 for Christmas. Taking the family’s gifts over and seeing the joy in the children’s faces was so rewarding to us all.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
People always say, “Do the right thing.” It’s great advice, but as you mature, you realize it’s not always so black and white. If you have a source of faith that is your North Star, it makes it much easier to make decisions. Recognize that “do the right thing” does not mean doing the easy thing, and it may not even mean doing the “kind” thing. Sometimes what seems kind in the moment is not the right course for the long-term.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
A sense of purpose, time to recharge and Indian food
Thank you for chatting with us, Nisha, and thanks to Elizabeth Looney for the beautiful photos.
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