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Tradeswomen the Trailblazers - Structure Tone
With more women in construction management roles today than ever before, have we forgotten about tradeswomen and their fight for gender equality on site? On this episode, meet Lorien Barlow, director and producer of Hard Hatted Woman, the first feature-length documentary film about women breaking down gender barriers in the construction trades.
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women in construction

Tradeswomen the Trailblazers

With more women in construction management roles today than ever before, have we forgotten about tradeswomen and their fight for gender equality on site? On this episode, meet Lorien Barlow, director and producer of Hard Hatted Woman, the first feature-length documentary film about women breaking down gender barriers in the construction trades.


Narrator: Welcome to Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. On today’s episode, Alison Smith, a member of STO’s corporate marketing team will be speaking with Lorien Barlow, director and producer of Hard Hatted Woman, the first feature-length documentary film about women breaking down gender barriers in the construction trades.

Alison Smith: Welcome, Lorien.

Lorien Barlow: Thank you so much for having me.

Alison Smith: So, let’s jump right in to the movie. You’re directing and producing this movie Hard Hatted Woman, the first major film focused on women in construction. So, can you describe the basis of the movie and how you came to have this idea?

Lorien Barlow: Sure. Um, well the film has been several years in the making and when I started the project I was captivated by tradeswomen, and like I started talking to, you know, casually interviewing tradeswomen and sort of starting to immerse myself in the topic and their experiences. And I was really struck by how they all really seemed to be cut from a similar cloth. There was something so intriguing about who these women are at their core. You know, what kind of a woman would choose such a daunting career path, right? I mean, they’re diving into this completely male dominated world. You know, they’re, they’re brave, they’re gritty, they’re funny. I just, I just kinda fell in love with them and I really wanted to create a film that celebrated them as, as trailblazers and groundbreakers and portrayed their experiences. So, I was really interested in portraiture. Um, and I wanted to make a very intimate film.

So, I started the project and you know, as it evolved and as I got to know the trades, it became clear that this was a bigger story, right? Like it’s not just about women in this male dominated space. It’s about this entire industry. And this, this moment in time where, um, we’re looking at the labor shortage, we’re looking at how to draw nontraditional populations into the trades. And we’re in that conversation, we have to kind of look at the trades in a different light and say, how have we underserved people, you know, coming out of high school or even college graduates who these are great careers for them and we’re just not pitching these jobs to, um, to a lot of young people. So it’s a conversation about ultimately elevating the trades and sort of making the satisfaction and the rewards of the work visible again. Because I think over the past decades we’ve all seen that there’s been a diminishment of what used to really be regarded as like awesome, glorious work, right? Like these, these are the people building America. So the film, yeah. Started as, as a story about women and then expanded into, you know, the people that build America.

Alison Smith: When did you first start like tinkering with the idea or when did you really start digging in? Like what year was it?

Lorien Barlow: Um, I feel like at this point, like asking me as a doc filmmaker how long it’s, it’s like, it’s like asking my woman her age or something like, um, it’s been on and off. It’s been an on and off marathon so I can see that the project almost seven years ago, and the first year was just kind of spent like, should I do this? Can I do this? You know, how to dive in. How am I going to raise the money for it? Year two, I, I dove in with both feet. I started my Kickstarter, I’ve been shooting, just doing some preliminary research, shooting, interviewing women on camera and off, um, getting onto my first jobsites, getting a feel for that.

So, after my Kickstarter, finally I had my first flush of funding and I was able to hire my first crew member, which was my cinematographer, Autumn Aiken, who has been like my compatriot through this whole wild ride. She’s amazing. And for the next two years we intermittently kind of flew all over the country together. Um, we had five characters spread throughout the country. So, we had, uh, uh, two characters in New York, one in Chicago, one in Portland, Oregon, and one in Texas. So, you know, we hit the road with our cameras and would like, embed on construction sites and follow these women through years of their life.

You know, and that’s really integral to the documentary process. You want to capture an arc, you want to capture character development and you’re shooting real life, so you have to be patient for life to happen. And that process really paid off. I mean our characters went through some pretty significant transitions over the course of filming, which you know, you’ll see in the movie. And um, and then once we sort of had collected all the, all the footage, we moved into the editing phase, which is this whole other, um, it’s an entirely different mood. You know, you’re pouring through hundreds of hours of footage trying to find the gold there, you know, you create the story.

Alison Smith: And you probably have too much gold, you know?

Lorien Barlow: Too much gold! That’s a good problem to have. So now we’re in the seasons, I call it the season of Sophie’s choices, right? Like we have a two-hour rough cut, it has to be 90 minutes. There’s this, all this amazing material and we have to make really, really hard decisions about what makes it into the final film. So that’s where we’re at now.

So, um, you know, fundraising all the way has been a huge part of, um, my work as a producer, but it’s also been a really great opportunity to reach out to, to the industry itself. And that was a real turning point for the project. Like, I think it was two, two/three years ago, you know, I was applying for these grants that are so competitive, so hard to get. I was sort of eking along financially with the project and yet I was getting these emails from companies saying, hey, we heard about this project, can we show the trailer at our conference? Would you come and speak? And those emails just kept coming and I realized, oh my gosh, like there’s an incredible need for this film. There’s so much interest in this project and maybe I can look to the industry for support and finishing it and, you know, fundraising and finishing the film. Um, and that’s what I ended up doing. And since then, we’ve had an incredible family of donors come aboard and Structure Tone being one of the first, actually. Um, and it is the reason that the film has come this far for sure. And it’s also been a great platform to talk about the film. I mean, I’ve, you know, I was a keynote speaker at groundbreaking women in construction two years ago. Autodesk, one of my industry partners flew me out to Las Vegas last year where I gave a keynote in front of like 2,000 AEC people. And I had like the TEDX microphone on my ear. It was pretty incredible.

Alison Smith: That’s big-time.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah. And we did, you know, a panel on tradeswoman, I’m going out again this year. Um, I’ve, you know, went to NAWIC’s National Conference and presented there. So, I’ve really been able to start the conversation even before the film is out through these partnerships, which has been really wonderful.

Alison Smith: And that’s part of why I was asking about when you first conceived with the idea, because it seems like your timing has just been so fortuitous. You know, women in construction was a topic say six, seven years ago. But the way, like you were saying, the labor shortage and a lot of the movement of elevating women in all careers has just been taking off since then. I feel like you were really on the forefront of that. And I’m hoping for you that this kinda worked out better, you know, in helping fuel what you’re hearing and the support you’re getting and all that stuff for the film.

Lorien Barlow: Oh, absolutely. It’s, I think it’s, you know, as much as I wish I had finished the film and premiered it three years ago, it’s a totally different context now that it’s a different world and it’s also posted Me Too. And that’s, you know, an aspect of the film. And the fact is, is that we really still haven’t had a conversation about blue collar women in their workspaces. And the intensity over the labor shortage has just exploded in this time that I started the project. And also, you know, more and more I’m seeing these, I’m seeing so much more press like I’m seeing, you know, Washington Post, New York Times, NPR. Everyone’s doing these stories on maybe college isn’t the only route and you know, maybe apprenticeships, maybe we need to take a second look at that. So yeah, you’re right. I feel like it’s maybe the wisdom of the universe has, has put the project on a track to come out at just the right moment.

Alison Smith: Yeah, it seems like.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah.

Alison Smith: Okay. So, when you were mentioning that you had kind of these key people that you were following around over their story, how were you first put in touch with them? How did you find the people to focus on?

Lorien Barlow: Yeah, my first character that I cast was Ambra Melendez. She’s an iron worker in New York and I actually came across very early on, um, a bit of press about her and it was just a short little story, I think in a local paper. And she had some feisty quotes in there and I said, “Oh hey, let me talk to her.” I sought her out on Facebook, we connected. And within two minutes on the phone with her, I was like, oh my gosh, this is, this is…

Alison Smith: The character.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah, this is the, the one. Um, the one of five as it turns out. But, um, yeah, Ambra is still a very beloved member of the cast and she’s often asked to do press with me. Um, she’s just fantastic. Um.

Alison Smith: Where was she?

Lorien Barlow: She was in New York. She’s in New York. Yeah. And her fingerprints are all over this city. I mean, she’s worked on World Trade Center rebuild. She’s worked on almost every major bridge. She worked on the hub. She’s, I mean, she’s building the bridges and highways, um, all over this city. She’s had a long career and she’s very proud of that. So, I really look forward to introducing New Yorkers to this incredible woman who has actually built the structures that they use every day.

So, I found Ambra through, that in that way. And then, you know, once I cracked into the tradeswomen community a little more and I gained some credibility and some trust, it became very easy for me to connect with people. Casting was very, very challenging though because I knew I wanted diversity in every sense. I wanted a diversity of trades, ages, races, sexual orientations or socioeconomic backgrounds. I mean I really wanted it to feel to the audience like a tradeswoman could be anyone, right? Like it’s, I wanted to capture sort of “the every” woman through this collection of characters. So, it was really, really challenging to find those people who not only complemented the other cast members well and created this balance I was looking for, but who I could get access to who were working, they were working on jobs that I could possibly film on. Because a lot of jobs I just couldn’t film on. It was just like never going to happen. So, it was an extraordinary challenge like casting these women and then being able to get access to them.

Often I would set my heart on someone who then, for whatever reason it didn’t work out because of jobsite issues. Some of my characters dropped out of the trades so soon that I really couldn’t capture their story. So, I mean, I’d say casting was actually another reason why the film has taken so long jobsite access and casting.

Alison Smith: Did any of them have apprehension about doing it or were all, were most of them really willing to talk about their experience, but it was more of a jobsite thing?

Lorien Barlow: So, all of them very willing. That was really a surprising, I’ve actually been asked that a few times in interviews and people expect there to be apprehension, but I think tradeswomen in their daily lives have to silence so much within themselves just to get through the day. And also, just so they can enjoy their work. They have to, not silence but compartmentalize at the, at the very least. Right. Um, so there’s always these, these frictions that happen for them on the jobsite, but just so that they can like go in every day and be bad asses and like connect with their crew and get the job done. They do have to compartmentalize.

So, when someone comes along and says, I want to create a space for you to share everything about being a tradeswoman, they’re really, really interested in that. Um, and excited to be a part of that. And they’re also really excited to share their story. All of them talk about wanting to inspire girls. I mean they really feel like, like trailblazers and they’ve been left out of that. They’re like this missing piece of like feminist history, right? Where we’re celebrating women in STEM but not women in the trades. And they, they sense that they are role models and they’re just eager to be given a platform to be celebrated in that way and to share their success and their story and inspire the next generation.

Alison Smith: That’s awesome. So especially since you were mentioning that you were really looking for diversity in all the ways, from city to city or type of worker to type of worker, what were some of the similarities or differences you were seeing in their experience in that kind of job?

Lorien Barlow: Yeah, I mean the other, the other, the other piece of diversity I was really interested that I want to add to that is, is where they are in their careers. So, I really saw this journey that I’d spoke to young tradeswomen, I spoke to older tradeswomen and I was really interested in creating this arc, you know, like what are the early years like, what happens mid-career. If you are one of the very few lucky ones to get towards retirement in that trades, like what does it look like to have a lifetime of this kind of experience behind you. And so that career arc was very interesting to me to capture. Um, I would say some of the similarities across region, across age, across all of these aspects. I would say these are all obviously really authentic women. They have to be authentic to have chosen this path to succeed in this path, right? They are rule breakers and they tend to, you know, be somewhat rebellious, very, um, stubborn or hardheaded. Hence the title of the film. Um, usually have a great sense of humor. Uh, yeah.

And they’re just, I think, I hate the word nontraditional, but I connected so much with these women and one of the reasons I started the project is because I sensed that I would, you know, I consider myself somewhat of a, a rule breaker and, and I just felt a kinship with them. You know, I think, and I think a lot of women will feel that there is a universality to their story and they will connect with these characters because I think to be like an awake alert, um, self-aware woman in the world is to understand what it feels like to have to like elbow your way in to spaces that you want to play in, right? Cause it is, it’s about just like let me let me in this space, I have ideas, I can, I can do this. And that sense of having to really fight your way in just to, to fully self-actualize is something that I think like women today everywhere can relate to. And tradeswomen are really like the epitome of that.

Alison Smith: Yeah. That’s interesting. Since you were sort of following the different stages of a woman’s career in the trades, are you, I mean, I know every person’s different and their jobs and everything will be different, but are you seeing, like say when you’re looking at someone who is fairly senior and you’re looking at someone who’s fairly, fairly junior, do their stories kind of align? You know what I mean? Like are you seeing like, I can see her future because I have already spoken with this senior person, or is it all over the map?

Lorien Barlow: I would say that some of the, the kind of touchstones that are very common in tradeswomen stories are, you know, they always begin their career really bright eyed and bushy tailed and optimistic and they always have this sense of pride and you know, they’re reveling in this kind of bad-assery. They feel like they’ve discovered this, this kind of invisible career that you know, no one knows about and they’re the only woman on the jobsite and they’re pioneering. And so, there is that expansive quality to, to some of the younger ones. Um, but then parallel to that, they’re starting to hit up against certain realities. Sometimes not in all apprenticeships, but ob—and apprenticeship is just hard for everyone. So, there’s, they sort of have a reality check somewhere in their apprenticeship. Like, oh, this is actually really hard. And some guys are great, and some aren’t. And I think a lot of people drop out of apprenticeship. Attrition is a real thing in those first four years. But then if…

Alison Smith: Men and women, right?

Lorien Barlow: Men and women, absolutely. Yeah. And unfortunately, we just don’t have enough data yet to, I mean, I’m sort of like, I’m, I’m very sort of policy wonkish and nerdy in terms of tradeswomen’s statistics and recruitment and retention and attrition rates. And unfortunately, we just don’t have enough data to be able to compare, um, attrition rates amongst female apprentices and male apprentices. And I’m very good friends with like women on the Tradeswomen Task Force or like the Coalition for Women in Construction in New York City. So, so I know these people who, if these figures were out there, we would know, and we just don’t.

Um, but anecdotally you can sort of draw some of these, you know, these generalizations. Um, so if you make it through your apprenticeship, there’s, I would call like this, the, the mid-career crisis, which is women who have been in like seven or eight years are starting to realize there’s the wear and tear of what they do both emotionally and physically is starting to take a toll. And they’re starting to think, is this sustainable? And I’d say seven, eight years is another point where you see like a remarkable moment of attrition because women are realizing, okay, I’m in my thirties or forties and I just don’t see myself doing this. I just don’t want to do this for another seven or eight years.

And then you know, if you, there are those veterans out there who’ve been in like 25, 30 years and maybe they’re in their 50s and they’re close to retirement. And what I have found to be true about those women is they’re extraordinary obviously. But you also really sense that it has shaped them as people and for the good and the bad. I think there’s a lot of scar tissue there by that time that you can almost feel it and talking to them and they’re, you know, they’re, they’re soldiers really, you know, I mean, I, I don’t make that comparison lightly. I mean they have, these women were the first in the industry if they’re retiring now, they were in that first generation of women who came in and faced the worst of the worst and they stuck it out. And, and here they are about to reap the rewards and good on them. I mean, that’s what every worker deserves is to be able to collect, you know, that pension and those benefits in their retirement. But very few women get there and the ones that do are pretty, pretty exceptional.

Alison Smith: Yeah. So, and given that you’ve been speaking to all the levels and that you ended up working on this project for a pretty long time, we touched on this a little already, but have you seen a change in the way they’re either perceiving themselves or being perceived on a jobsite as women, you know, in construction, like in the course of your work on it and maybe the stories you hear from some of the veterans? Like are you seeing that change?

Lorien Barlow: I hear a mood shift and it’s not necessarily like a number shift cause the number shift isn’t really there. Not For tradeswomen. I mean we’re seeing like, um, for women in construction as a whole or women in the office or STEM careers or you know, superintendents or project managers and project executives. Like in the management space, I think we’re seeing really women make gains. But in the tradespace we’re not seeing those gains. So, it’s not necessarily like a measurable progress, but I sense a mood shift and, and um, uh, kind of optimism. Like, maybe we are approaching some kind of tipping point, whether in the industry or just culturally we’re getting to the point where it just doesn’t make sense to segregate this occupation anymore. You know? Um, and a lot of the old timers, there’s this moment where all of the, the baby boomers are retiring now out of the trades, they call it, like the gray tsunami is really hitting the trades as well. So, a lot of those older attitudes are just on their way out naturally. And a lot of the younger guys coming in, I hear women tell me this a lot actually, that the younger guys are just like, don’t care. They’re so cool.

Alison Smith: Don’t even really…

Lorien Barlow: Yeah. They’re like whatever, you know. Um, so I think there’s just a general, a generational shift that’s happening that will do a lot of this job for us in terms of changing jobsite culture.

Alison Smith: And I do know, you know, construction’s a traditional slow moving.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah.

Alison Smith: You, know, change doesn’t happen fast. But I know from, you know, from our own perspective here and what we’re seeing with our peers and everything is, um, like you were saying that the mood is definitely changing where things you wouldn’t have even thought of like how a safety vest fits or that signs that say “Men at Work.”

Lorien Barlow: Yeah, yeah.

Alison Smith: You know, those kinds of things are changing to “People at Work,” or women’s sizes for the vests. Yeah. You know, those weren’t even considerations before.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah. Right.

Alison Smith: And they’re becoming so now, so that’s promising.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah, absolutely.

Alison Smith: Um, so on that note, when the film comes out, what are, I guess, where are you hoping it does for these women in particular or the industry as a whole? You know, what is your vision for what the next steps will be once your film’s out?

Lorien Barlow: Well, I’ll start with the impact. I would like my film to have any industry itself because obviously, you know, the film will go on to reach general audiences and hopefully do, do a different kind of work there and the general public. But at the end of the day, I think every documentary filmmaker wants their film to make a measurable difference. And, um, this industry, construction, is really, really ready to have this conversation. And I know we’re already having it, but my experience is we’re having it in the context of women in the office. Um, or you know, women within comp…

Alison Smith: More managerial?

Lorien Barlow: Yes, women in the company, more managerial and that’s fantastic. And those are important conversations. And you know, I’m, I’m talking to companies who are promoting more female superintendents, which is really important because every woman we can put on the jobsite in a leadership or supervisory position has this opportunity to influence jobsite culture in a very powerful way and make tradeswomen on the job feel safer, frankly.

So those are all really important changes. But I, I go to so many conferences and I speak to so many people who say, we’re really interested in doing this. We just don’t know how the supply isn’t there. We don’t know where to find the women. And that is the conversation that needs to be had because the fact is, I’ve been spending, you know, five plus years talking to tradeswomen who are like, we’re trained and we’re ready to work and we can’t, we don’t stay employed. And it’s for no shortage of experience or qualification or skill. So, there’s really, there’s something broken here. There’s a real disconnect, you know. And one of my friends, Liz Skidmore, she’s, um, a business manager for the New England Council of Carpenters and she’s done amazing–you’re from Boston. She’s done amazing work in Boston. Have you seen the Build A Life program?

Alison Smith: Um, yeah.

Lorien Barlow:Okay. So, Liz was behind Build A Life, I should say, Policy Group for Tradeswomen’s Issues. So PGTI is the group that Liz belongs to and they were really instrumental in, in this program with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Alison Smith: Yeah, the Globe did a big story on them I’m pretty sure.

Lorien Barlow: I’m so glad because this is really cutting-edge. And, and so PGTI’s position is you cannot make this a supply side problem. And that’s all we’ve been doing for the, you know, with women for decades is saying there’s just not enough women. Well everyone knows if you create the demand for something, the supply will come, right. So, we’ve had 3%, 3%, 3% women and here comes Mass Gaming Commission and they said we’re going to set a very high bar for women’s participation on our jobsites. We want 15% women on our jobsites building our casinos. And once they set that intention, obviously there was a lot of coordination that had to happen, you know, between the end user and the trades like, and there’s, as we know, you know, construction is an ecosystem, it’s complex. There are many players. So there had to be coordination, monitoring, enforcement, etc. But they put those pieces in place and the Build A Life program came out of that intention. So, they were like, okay, we’ve set this goal now for women. Let’s find the women, let’s create the pipeline. And they worked with their, the local union and they created this incredible marketing campaign to women called Build A Life. And there they were, you know, on billboards next to the highway.

Alison Smith: I saw those!

Lorien Barlow: And on posters and in subway stations showing tradeswomen and telling these women’s stories about, you know, the incredible empowerment that came to them through these careers. And they, and they found the women and they reached their goal and it’s like bing, bang, boom. You know.

Alison Smith: And so now you have to sustain it and find the next big casino or job.

Lorien Barlow: Exactly. You have to find the end user, the owner, developer, whoever, who is going to realize they have the power ultimately is the person writing the check. They have the power to set the benchmarks and you know, once that intention is set, you know, look, if you say I need you to build me a 65-story building, you expect them to build you a 65-story building. They can’t come and say, we only got to 60. Sorry. Right. I mean like that’s part of the contract. And I think, um, in terms of diversity in the, in the craft field, like in, in the workforce, I think end-users really have yet to understand how influential they are and moving the needle.

Alison Smith: Yeah. There are so many factors, you know, that go into what your, what your plan is for your project. And for some clients it’s really all about budget, you know, and what’s gonna fit my budget. And for some, um, it’s about schedule. But I think again, like we were talking about before, this mood shift is, is making that be one of those factors. You know, how diverse is our team? I know we are asked for that, um, in proposals, you know, that, that’s, that’s a question now what do you do to make your, your team more diverse? Um, and that never used to be, you know, something that people asked about and we know that it’s something our clients care about now. Um, so it’s, that needle will move.

Lorien Barlow: Yes, yeah.

Alison Smith: But you’re right, it’s, and it literally is kind of going top down, which, yeah, I guess that sort of has to, but.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah. Yeah.

Alison Smith: Okay. So, what’s, what’s next? Like, where’s the film now and what, what is gonna, what are your next steps before it gets to audiences?

Lorien Barlow: Um, well so we’re in the edit right now and, and um, it’s an intensely creative time and it’s incredibly meaningful moment because I’ve spent really, this project has consumed most of my thirties and I’m seeing it come to fruition. And then like there’s that moment where after many years you kind of sit back and you watch something that now looks like a film and it’s incredibly, it’s an incredibly powerful moment personally, but then also lots of work still to be done. I mean we’re not done in the edit, um, by, by a stretch and we’re not done fundraising. And even when we have the finished film, there’s like music and coloring and sound mixing and all of this really fun polishing work that that needs doing. But you’re usually doing it under like a crazy deadline cause you’re set to premiere and like two months. And so, there’s this mad dash to get the film ready for premiere and then you premiere it and you feel like you’re done. But that’s actually just the beginning of a whole other story, which is taking it on the road and having many conversations about this film for a year or two afterwards. So, my work isn’t done yet, but I try to, um, take moments along the way to appreciate how far we’ve come. So.

Alison Smith: We are so looking forward to it.

Lorien Barlow: I know, me too! Me too.

Alison Smith: Have the women in it seen your rough cuts yet? Like are they seeing it or are you going to wait, and like, unveil?

Lorien Barlow: No. I, you know what? Yeah, I spoke to a filmmaker, I was at Sundance actually two years ago and I was talking to filmmakers about that. Like, do you show that, you know, how do you, what’s the best way to go about it? And the consensus, near consensus seemed to be that it is really hard for anyone to watch themselves in a film and not be incredibly self-critical or to start to feel just hyper-aware and um, you’re not doing them any favors to give them a rough cut be like, hey, how do you feel about this? You’re actually setting both of yourself and them up for like a very painful negotiation process of like what should stay in and what’s powerful and, and so I think they’re going to see it when the premiere audience sees it.

Alison Smith: So that’s kind of exciting.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah. Yeah.

Alison Smith: It’s like finding out if you’re having a boy or a girl.

Lorien Barlow: Yeah And they’ll feel all the love in the room like, and that will help them, that will help them through that moment of, um, I, what I can only imagine is like an incredibly surreal moment of seeing yourself in a movie. Um, like as an average person who never signed up for this. Yeah. But like, yeah. To feel the room responding to them and um, laughing and loving and crying and you know, and I think that will be the best way for them to, to see the film for the first time.

Alison Smith: It’s exciting. Well, we’re really looking forward to it and um, I thank you for talking to us about it and keep us posted.

Lorien Barlow: Oh, I will, I will. Thank you so much for staying so involved and committed as a, as a partner. It’s, it’s been really nice to, to have you part of our family. So, and thank you for inviting me in. This is a great experience.

Alison Smith: Thanks, Lorien.