• Beth Delany

Q&A with: Jean Brownhill

Updated: Nov 9, 2019


PHOTO: SWEETEN

There are few relationships in life where a perfect match is fundamental. While some might immediately think that finding their soulmate is the highest priority, the home renovation matchmaking service Sweeten reminds us that home is where the heart is. Matching homeowners with local general contractors with the goal of an on-time and on-budget project is a free service now available in Chicago.


Behind Sweeten is founder Jean Brownhill who is the hottest name in home renovation and contemporary design. Named as one of Inc. Magazine's "Most Innovative Women," Brownhill created Sweeten in 2011 as a way to reduce the inevitable stress that accompanies a thoughtfully detailed home overhaul. Aside from her upcoming appearance in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the trained architect is the co-founder of the African American Student Union at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and one of the few proud African American female entrepreneurs to raise $1M+ in venture capital.


As Brownhill navigates a male-dominated industry, she advises young innovators and creators to stop worrying and keep working.

PHOTO: SWEETEN

How does Sweeten breed trust between homeowners and their contractors?

Every general contractor in our network is thoroughly vetted. We also make sure homeowners are being realistic about the budget and timeline from the start, so when we make a match, there’s a built-in confidence the renovation can proceed smoothly. We offer to help evaluate their contractor options -- both from a cost and communication style standpoint -- plus an account manager [who] stays involved until the job is done for extra peace of mind.


As the co-founder of the African American Student Union (AASU) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, what do you hope to impart on the younger generation about thoughtful design? I’ve been very fortunate to attend both Cooper Union and Harvard tuition-free. I felt very motivated to pay it forward; that was a big part of my motivation to co-found the AASU. My hope was to create a community for the students and the voices of color in architecture, landscape and real estate. We have certainly done that, as evidenced by the students.


What does it mean to be an innovative woman in 2019? What is the pressure like for women to always have to be one step ahead?

Construction is NOT an industry known for its innovation (or women, for that matter). For me, the question has always been how to make the expensive and often emotional process of renovation simpler and less stressful. That’s my motivation.

In a changing world, how is Sweeten remaining conscious and responsible?

We educate our audience about renovating green, recruit contractors who specialize in passive houses, and highlight remodels featuring the re-use of materials. We’re also aiming to raise the consciousness of women in the general contracting industry. Less than 3% of professional and management roles in construction are filled by women, despite a much narrower pay gap vs. men than other fields. Sweeten Accelerator for Women is an initiative that actively promotes female general contractors in our network. In phase two, we’ll help groom the next wave of female builders.


What advice would you give your younger self about the key to success?

Stop worrying all the time; it serves no purpose. Either you’re working to address the issue or you’re resting in order to address the issue. Worrying interferes with both of these helpful actions.

Copyright © 2020 BETH DELANY