More than two and a half million people call Chicago home, but very few live and breathe The City That Works quite like Nina Cozzo.
The confident, gregarious woman embodies the city in which she’s spent her entire life. Cozzo grew up in the Italian neighborhood of Grand and Ogden in one of a series of buildings owned by her grandparents—a cluster of homes she affectionately calls “The Compound.” From there, she expanded her scope to schools, jobs, and experiences throughout the diverse metropolis. And in 2016, she found her dream job as director of facilities management for the City of Chicago at the age of 32, a role that allows her to make her own impact on a place that made such an impact on her.
“Everything about my life and career goes back to my upbringing,” Cozzo says, seated at a cozy table at the sports bar owned by her family. “Being from a close-knit Italian family, living with a single mother, immersed in Chicago. There are multicultural neighborhoods, ritzy neighborhoods, and blue collar neighborhoods, all in the span of 10 minutes. You’re forced to adapt to everything.”
The first major adaptation of Cozzo’s career came when she found herself not quite fitting in as an interior designer, a job she’d spent her whole childhood assuming would be a perfect fit for. Cozzo drew floor plans as early as kindergarten and would go around family members’ homes offering remodeling advice. But by the time she received her bachelor’s degree in the field and taken on her first interior design job, Cozzo knew she’d need to pivot.
While working in sales for a contract furniture company, she had connected with property managers, developers, construction companies, and utilities and had grown interested in the construction industry. With the guidance of a mentor, Cozzo stepped into project management, first with a flooring subcontractor, and then with Peoples Gas. Cozzo says she learned a lot about herself through both roles, as well about the needs and challenges of both small and large companies, and about an entire new side of the creation and maintenance of spaces. But more importantly, her position at Peoples Gas gave Cozzo her first opportunity to work directly with the City.
“I appreciated the opportunity to work on a lot of big infrastructure projects in the city,” Cozzo recalls. After a brief pit stop with a commercial real estate company, she came across a job posting to work for the City full-time. Cozzo had set herself a goal to become an executive before the age of 35, and as such, took steps into business leadership such as earning her MBA before turning 30. The role with the city would combine her strengths with the ability to work directly for the hometown she loved. Everything fit together perfectly. “I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be,” Cozzo says.
Cozzo joined the City officially in 2016 and quickly learned that the job would come with a long list of challenges. But luckily, her upbringing prepared her for the day-to-day elements of the job. “This environment is fascinating, and not very many people could handle it. But my family and education prepared me,” she says. “My grandfather was an entrepreneur. My mother was a single mom. You learn to be resilient.”
She is in charge of two hundred people, who are responsible for maintaining more than 400 City buildings, which include facilities such as police and fire stations, libraries, public health centers, and other public buildings. Whether it’s attending to a malfunctioning heating system at a senior citizen warming center in the middle of the winter, resetting an inadvertently triggered distress alarm at a police station, or responding to a broken pipe at City Hall, Cozzo and her team need to be ready to respond to a variety of facility needs at all hours of the day and at a moment’s notice.
“You have to think creatively, while being mindful of the fact that you’re dealing with taxpayer dollars,” she says. “You have to figure out the staffing and resources required and whether you might need multiple trades or another City department when it seems like you have just one simple issue. You have to figure out the most efficient way to get things done.”
In addition to those building projects, Cozzo and her team have taken the lead on a wide variety of challenges. One major project involved acquiring and rolling out body cameras and necessary building infrastructure to Chicago police officers across the city, all ahead of schedule and under budget. “We’re not only contributing to the safety of the public, but also protecting the police officers,” Cozzo says. “Every department is always coming up with new initiatives, and we help out as much as we can.”
Another major undertaking is the upkeep on the recently developed Riverwalk. The bustling stretch of businesses and scenic walkways along the Chicago River is undergoing further development and calls for a dedicated crew from Cozzo’s department. “We have staff down there every single day from March to November to accommodate the City’s latest attraction, whether doing bathroom repairs or operating the garbage boat on the river,” she says.
Beyond the challenges of the job, Cozzo’s friends and family at first assumed that, as a woman far younger than most of the tradesmen and women, she would run into leadership issues. But the hard-nosed work ethic and no-nonsense attitude instilled in her from her childhood quickly eased that concern. “My boss would say that the guys give me a hard time, but I give it right back. I have a little bit of an edge,” she says with a laugh. “I’m really ambitious and have a lot of energy. I grew up going to work with my mom and grandpa at a union office, so I know the environment and mentality, but I see things from a fresh perspective. I don’t care what your title is; I treat everyone with the same respect.”
Photos: Cass Davis, Christian Phillips Photography