Jean Brownhill built an “Uber for contractors” matching them to projects; she’s now facilitated $3.5 billion in construction business

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 19, 2024 3:06 AM EDT
Jean Brownhill. Photo credit: Jean Brownhill

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women only provide ten percent of services directly needed in construction. The gender gap is wider at the executive level where less than three percent of the professional and management roles within the construction industry are filled by women. Interestingly, the wage gap between genders is narrower in the construction industry when compared to the national average. Nonetheless, Jean Brownhill, founder and CEO of Sweeten has leveraged the available opportunities to build a firm that has facilitated about $3.5 billion in construction projects.

“The phrase ‘I can’t’ usually isn’t an option for dealing with tough life situations, at any age, and that was a lesson that I internalized so early on. It’s been the big differentiator for me,” Brownhill said about creating opportunities for herself.

Brownhill has been a go-getter from the start. Growing up in a low-income household with a single mother, she learned early in life to make everything possible. She had her first job at 13 years old washing dishes at a BBQ & Grill and has since been working. Brownhill wasn’t particularly interested in writing or reading as she has dyslexia. She was advised to look into architecture as a career option by her high school guidance counselor. It was her first hearing of the profession and she was intrigued.

Her mother found her a place at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. She was offered a full-tuition scholarship.. After earning her bachelor’s in architecture, Brownhill worked interior renovations in high-end residential New York City. She then moved to a larger firm working in the Hamptons and later to Coach where she worked on projects of all sizes. The inefficiencies she witnessed in the ten years she worked as an architect would later inspire her to pivot to technology.

“I felt passionately that people who’ve worked hard to save up for a house should have a good experience renovating that space into their home. It was a pretty simple idea that was sparked by my own bad choice of a contractor for my remodel. I’d graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture, worked in the field for years, and even with that training, made this common mistake and ended up having a terrible experience,” Brownhill said about what inspired her to found Sweeten.

Ultimately, it was a personal experience that convinced Brownhill to pursue the change she sought. She had bought a house in Brooklyn and was excited to renovate but she experienced great difficulty sourcing the right contractors. She realized that people with budgets of less than $100,000 missed out on the service level components that architects provide. Brownhill left her job to work as a general contractor on her home project while consulting on the side. Her presentations on integrating technology and the contractor business were met with skepticism.

At one of those presentations, a senior architect was impressed by her ideas and nominated her for the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. Brownhill had already launched several companies to see how technology could improve the mass’s access to high-quality construction and design resources. She launched Sweeten, derived from the colloquialism “home sweet home” before leaving for the fellowship and built on the concept while there. The company’s digital service began matching renovators with vetted general contractors in 2011, monitoring all projects from consultation to completion.

Initially, Brownhill was bootstrapping the company. She followed the advice of an investor friend and decided to seek venture capital in 2015. Sweeten raised $3.4 million in Series A funding and has since secured over $20 million in venture capital. The platform has invested in advanced algorithms which match home renovators with the best general contractors for their projects. Sweeten ensures that homeowners are realistic about costs and timelines from the start which makes for better matches and a smooth renovation process. It also thoroughly vets general contractors and lightens their load by taking on back-office tasks such as documentation, customer service, sales, marketing, and deal flow.

Brownhill has built Sweeten into a premier home renovation marketplace. From handling project budgets of around $2,000, the service’s contractor database has increased to an average project size budget of $100,000. It has managed nearly $3.5 billion in construction projects since its establishment over a decade ago. The tinder for contractors and homeowners, Brownhill is making the home renovation process more personable, efficient, and clear.

Additionally, Sweteen is making construction more sustainable by educating its clients about renovating green, recruiting contractors who specialize in passive houses, and highlighting remodels featuring the re-use of materials. It has initiated the Sweeten Accelerator for Women which promotes female general contractors in our network and helps groom female builders.