In our “Behind the Build” series, so far we’ve explored how builders have started up in the industry. From joining large and specialty contracting firms to working their way up from a summer laborer to a superintendent, many of our spotlights have focused on a sometimes long, but steady journey of professional growth.
For Juliana Choy Sommer, president of Priority Architectural Graphics, her journey was one she had to pave on her own. As the founder of one of the largest architectural graphics firms in San Francisco, she started her company at the age of 21. Her grit and determination have allowed her to grow her company into the Bay Area force it is today. Below, she discusses what it’s like to be in a family of builders as well as her thoughts on entrepreneurship.
What first got you into construction?
I was actually born into the industry. My father is a contractor, so I grew up with contractors. He was an electrical contractor and then became a general contractor. My husband’s a general contractor, and I’m an architectural signage contractor. My family has a strong presence in construction.
What does your family think of you being in construction?
My brother is an architect and works for Gensler. My sister works for an architecture firm as well. I’m obviously in the construction industry, so they love the fact that we’ve continued building. We’re from San Francisco, so it’s incredible to have the opportunity to drive around town and see the projects that our family has been a part of or has touched.
My family built North Beach Pool. We built Helen Wills Park in San Francisco. We built 23rd and Treat Park in San Francisco. We renovated the Noe Valley Library, the Eureka Valley Library as well as Parkside Library–all in San Francisco. These are all neighborhood gems and treasures. To be able to drive from one area to the next and know that we had an impact is an incredible feeling.
Why do you build?
I love construction because at the end of the day we provide a tangible product. We can walk up and feel it. The product that we deliver is something that is solid. We can see it with our eyes and that in itself is a wonderful feeling.
I love coming to work every day because in this industry we collaborate. We work with general contractors, architects, graphic designers and engineers and that’s what makes it so fun. Our goal is to deliver an amazing construction project, and it’s a fantastic feeling to walk away at the end of the day or the end of the project knowing that we coordinated with all these different people and were able to deliver something amazing.
Is there a particular project that you’re most proud of?
Our company built and installed all the signage in Golden Gate Park.
The park is an international tourist destination, and we know that on any given day we have thousands of eyes on our product. We produced wayfinding maps and directional signs that get people through the park. It’s very exciting for us and something we’re proud we played a role in.
What would you say is frustrating about work?
Not having enough time. There are so many amazing projects that we wish we could be a part of right now because construction is so strong in San Francisco. There’s an amazing number of housing units that are being built and an astonishing number of civic projects that are in the pipeline. We’d love to be a part of all of it if we could, but obviously, we only have so much time and man hours available to us. That’s probably the most frustrating aspect of the industry today is that there is just so much excitement going on right now and we can’t be a part of all of it.
How has technology changed the way you have worked on jobsites?
My internal team is very open to technology, and we have so many more tools that are available to us today than we had even five years ago. These tools allow us to communicate much clearer and in real time. It’s also encouraging to see that more people in the industry are now open to learning, using and understanding these new tools. At the end of the day, it makes my team more efficient and it’s a valuable thing for us.
What drove you to entrepreneurship and to start Priority Architectural Graphics?
I feel like it’s in my DNA that I was just destined to be an entrepreneur.
I often wonder if I would’ve been satisfied working somewhere else, and it’s hard to say because I started my company when I was 21 years old fresh out of college. I started it a 350 square foot room with an engraving machine. Starting up, it was just me and this machine. I did everything myself from setting up the machine, learning how to use it to make signs and hitting the pavement to get myself out there. It took a few months until I started to get clients. Nonetheless, it’s a strange feeling because I don’t have a reference point of what it would be like to work for somebody else. I was just relentless, and I needed it to work. I think to myself, was I just destined to be an entrepreneur and entrepreneur only?
What would you share with the next generation of builders?
If someone is looking to become an entrepreneur themselves, they need to be relentless. There are so many people to meet and collaborate within this industry. You really need to be determined and make connections. That means constantly putting yourself out there to meeting all of these people. Many amazing, brilliant minds are out there that are just as excited as you are to build incredible things.
How have you seen the industry evolve?
It’s been an interesting journey, and I’ve kind of had to pave my own way. I think that it’s different now. There are many more females in the construction industry now, and I have project teams that I’m working with now that are completely female. There are way more opportunities now than ever before. I find it to be very exciting time to be in construction.