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Thought Leadership Sustainable Communities

ULI Atlanta Member Spotlight: Malory Atkinson, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Shear Structural and Chair of ULI Atlanta’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI)

Urban Land Institute

We spoke with Atkinson about how a stint at a tech startup led her to starting Atlanta’s only female-led structural engineering firm, her love for all things ULI and how she serves her neighbors in unexpected ways.

Malory Atkinson isn’t afraid to stand out in a crowd.

Maybe it’s her penchant for vintage style. Or, maybe it’s her unique backgrounds in both construction and engineering operations. Either way, she has learned to embrace what makes her different — and how to leverage these to her advantage.

As a co-founder and managing partner at Shear Structural, Atkinson blends her experience in technical, marketing, business development plus a stint at a tech startup to carve her own niche in Atlanta’s real estate industry.

From even a quick glance at Shear Structural’s website, the first impression is clear: this isn’t your stereotypical engineering firm — and that is by design.

There’s a well-populated Instagram page that illustrates the diverse employees and vibrant company culture. And the brightest beacon of change? The C-suite is all female. 

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

In fact, Shear is the only 100% women-owned and women-managed structural engineering firm in the state of Georgia. In 2017, Atkinson co-founded the company alongside fellow managing partners, Karen Jenkins and Holly Jeffreys. 

“We made a conscious effort to not have the name of the company be our last names,” Atkinson said. “We felt that was a little too traditional for us and could be something that makes employees not feel quite as much of a level of ownership with the firm. Shear isn’t just the three of us, it’s our whole team.”

They also made the conscious effort to be as diverse as possible. “We have an opportunity to show that a structural engineering firm, from the leadership down, can look very different than people think — and prove we can be successful,” she said. “To some people, it’s just refreshing to be different and to look different.”

They’re proud to hold a Minority/Female Business Enterprise (“M/FBE”) certification with Fulton County, a Female Business Enterprise (FBE) with the City of Atlanta, and a Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) certification with the Small Business Administration. 

While they may be small, they are certainly mighty. The firm’s leaders have been around the block for years, focused solely on providing dedicated structural engineering services to architects, contractors, institutions, developers, and communities throughout the Southeast. Odds are you would recognize their past work for and at major Atlanta institutions including Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Westside Provisions District, Ponce City Market, Krog Street Market and 1375 Peachtree, among others. 


Since launching Shear fewer than three years ago, the firm has grown from three employees to 12 employees, is licensed in 11 states and engineered more than 22,000,000 square feet of buildings, including 12 award-winning projects. Atkinson is responsible for making all the operations run smoothly — from finance and accounting to HR and marketing and sales.

Following its first full year, the company was added to PSMJ’s 2019 Circle of Excellence, representing the top 20% of Architecture and Engineering firms in the country in terms of profitability, overhead management, cash flow, productivity, business development, staff growth and turnover. 

“That was really exciting, right off the gate to be recognized as an extremely high-performing company,” she said. And the list of accolades goes on.

Atkinson personally was named “Small Business Person of the Year” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2018, one of Georgia State University’s 40 under 40 in 2019 and one of “100 Influential Women in Engineering” by Engineering Georgia in February 2020.

BUILT TO ADAPT

Of course, starting a new business doesn’t come without its challenges — navigating through a global pandemic among them. But Atkinson approaches every obstacle with an open mind to find creative solutions. 

That sense of fluidity is reflected on her resume as well. When the Roswell native graduated from Georgia Tech in 2008 with a BS in Building Construction, she had been working for a small general contractor as a site superintendent and a project manager. 

“I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but didn’t love being out in the field,” she said. So, she looked for a job in pre-construction and found an opportunity with an engineering company that focused on marketing and development. 

“It was a whole new world that I hadn’t been exposed to, one that was more big picture and higher level,” she said. During this time, she also received her Master of Business Administration from Georgia State.

Then in 2015, she decided to pivot again into a new field and accepted a role as Head of Sales and Marketing for 1Q, an Atlanta-based market research tech startup that created a customer engagement platform for big brands to interact directly with customers. 

“Typically, our industry has been behind the times and behind the trends, so I wanted to test my chops,” Atkinson said. “I knew I wanted to own a business in the future, so I’ve always taken positions to help me advance to the next level.”

The startup presented the opportunity to build something new from scratch that nobody had ever heard of, and then bring it to market. They also offered her equity, and a chance to experience how her relationship with work and work habits might change if she had ownership in that company.

“It was a good challenge for me to see how that worked, and it was an awesome experience. I got to fly around the country and work with the CMO at companies like Delta and Procter & Gamble,” she said. “The startup community is extremely high energy and very fast paced, with decisions made by the minute and things changing constantly. It was really cool to see.”  

Before long, Atkinson was figuring out how she could bring those skills back to the construction industry. She wondered: how could I set up a company in the real estate world to act with the benefits of a startup? 

“It’s all about being lean,” she said. “Culturally, we’ve always had our eye on how technology can help us do our job better, more efficiently, cheaper and leaner — keeping a high level of energy and constant change. In the tech world, you’re always asking yourself, ‘Why are we doing it this way, and can we make it better?’” 

In the early days of Shear, this approach included working remotely before moving to 3411 Coworking in Chamblee — structures that have proven to be a big benefit for her team in response to coronavirus. Shear also uses a lot of their profits to invest heavily in cutting-edge technology and stay at the forefront of cloud-based solutions. 

“I had always set up our company to be able to work remotely anywhere,” Atkinson said. “Now coworking is more common, but when we started, it wasn’t as common. It has given us a lot of flexibility.” 

A COMMON THREAD

Her emphasis thinking outside the box has impacted everything from the way Shear invoices clients to how Atkinson seeks out mentors.

“As I’ve gone through my career, I’ve always been excited about meeting people who are doing cool things — not only inside the industry. I’m not hesitant about asking people to go out to lunch or coffee and just talk to me about how they got to where they are,” she said. 

“I started my career in the recession and one of the worst times for business, so I didn’t know any differently,” she said. “I was networking with anyone who would talk to me, and I’m sure that is how I got started with ULI because I went to an event and fell in love with the organization.” 

Even when she left the industry for the tech startup and temporarily paused her membership, Atkinson still supported UrbanPlan since the organization was in need of trainers for the program.

 

“ULI and UrbanPlan were actually the common thread that kept me tied to the real estate industry even when I had temporarily left it,” she said. “ULI was also the first group I got involved with again when I returned, and I jumped in feet first. It’s my absolute favorite organization.”

In addition to serving as an UrbanPlan Facilitator, Atkinson was a 2019 graduate of the Center for Leadership and currently serves as the chair of Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), as well as a member of the Creative Development Council. 

“To me, ULI scratches an itch in the real estate industry,” she said. “I love the mission — how can we provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide— and here in Atlanta they do such a great job executing that mission. I love all the education events, I love the networking, I love the members involved and the conversations that we have, I love the work with UrbanPlan and getting to teach kids about how important land use and real estate are to their lives and communities.” 

While coronavirus halted in-person events, ULI and WLI adapted much of its calendar to a virtual format, including peer mentoring and the monthly breakfast series featuring women of influence with a focus on leadership, professional development & networking.  

“It will be fun to see how this goes while we all have breakfast at home,” she said. 

She added she’s always happy to be a mentor and often tells people she is willing to share her story and any advice she can offer over coffee, too. “I feel like the better that we all are, the better that we can collectively rise up to any challenge,” she said.

ANYTHING BUT BORING
Beyond her work with Shear and her involvement with ULI, she regularly supports, advocates and volunteers with various groups including the Georgia Tech Student Construction Association, Canstruction Atlanta and Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association, where she lives.

“It’s about as hyper-local as you can get,” she said of the latter. “I think it’s important for everybody to know your neighbors. Atlanta is such a big small town. Especially in this time of coronavirus, everyone is trying to help each other out so we can bounce back, just like we always have.”  

While there’s never a dull day, another highlight of the past year was when Atkinson and her husband welcomed their first child, a baby boy, into the world.

Some may be surprised to learn Atkinson also helped her husband open his own small business earlier this year. Located next to historic Manuel’s Tavern, Elemental Spirits Co. is a boutique bottle shop that specializes in small-batch spirits, natural or low-intervention wine and craft beer. They also resell vintage glassware Atkinson likes to thrift and collect.

When in need of libation for herself, Atkinson reaches for a Negroni, but with a twist. Typically, the cocktail gets its bright red color from the food coloring in Campari; Atkinson however has been using St. George Spirits’ Bruto Americano, which uses the old-school method of dried and crushed insects instead. 

Whether at the bar or in the boardroom, that penchant for authenticity continues to shine through. Lucky for us, she isn’t afraid to let it.

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