If there’s one moment in time, one memory she thinks back on now, that turned Lissette Calderon into the person she’d become, it was when her dad would bring her to his job sites. He was a builder, nothing big, just a house here and there, and Calderon can remember trudging through the dirt to follow him inside. “My cousins would be playing war in the dirt piles, and I’d be inside asking about why they laid the place out this way and why they did this and why they did that,” Calderon says.
She was 17 when a car crash took him, and she’s always wondered what he could have done if that hadn’t happened, whether his construction business would have contributed to Miami’s building boom. “My dream would have been to do it with him, to start a company together,” Calderon says. “Who knows what we could have done.”
Instead, it was Calderon who became one of Miami’s busiest builders, her mark left on gleaming towers that have risen along the water in the last generation. She says she’s working on a legacy of her own in the skyscrapers she constructs, while honoring those lessons she was taught on the construction sites as a kid.
The Cuban Connection
Back then, her father was scraping together a business from scratch, in a household that had struggled since coming from Cuba after Castro. Calderon’s grandmother, Fidelia “Filo” Calderon, was from a politically connected family before Castro’s regime took hold, the daughter of a senator. When she came to Miami, she took a job as a housekeeper at the Sheraton.
“I can close my eyes even today and imagine her coming home wearing that white uniform,”
Calderon says. “It was always pressed and impeccably clean. She did that job with dignity and pride.”
Calderon’s parents, Maria and Rafael, met when they were 17. They both worked at the Pantry Pride grocery store, her dad stocking shelves and mom working the cashier line.
Calderon arrived not long after, and they lived in a small apartment on Miami Circle with her grandmother Filo. Rafael built the construction business with one house at a time, eventually working up to where he had maybe three or four at once. He had a gift for numbers, one that Calderon inherited, always crunching the cost-benefit of every option.
His death came just two weeks after his mother Filo’s death, and then Calderon and her mother had to figure out how to go on without her father and the grandmother who helped raise her.
Maria Calderon took over running a business the family had developed managing apartments.
And when Lissette decided maybe she should stay close to home for college, her mother demanded that she continue with the plans she had set before her father’s death. So Calderon went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania’s esteemed Wharton School of Business.
Afterward, she took a job on Wall Street as an analyst. She dove in, 140 hours a week, building a bed under her desk out of FedEx boxes. A year in, she knew she needed to go back home.
Designing a New Life
At 22, Calderon took an entry-level job as assistant project manager at the Related Group.
Her first job was the development of the old Coral Gables bus station into the Gables Grand Plaza, a mix of retail and apartments. Calderon developed a love of new urban building, creating places where people could live, work and play in the same place.
Her desk was in a bullpen that held the entry-level project managers, just outside the office of company founder Jorge Pérez. She made a rule for herself to be the first one in and the last one to leave, and so Pérez would regularly stop to talk to her on his way in or out. “I have been really lucky to have some amazing mentors, and having Jorge Pérez give me advice early on was so crucial,” she says.
A Date With Destiny
Being the first one in and last one out didn’t give Calderon much time to socialize. When a high school friend showed up at her apartment in 1997 and demanded she go out for the night, Calderon blew her off. Her friend showed up anyway, dragging her out of bed. They ended up at Señor Frogs, and despite herself, Calderon found herself dancing late that night with a guy who had wandered over to their group.
They kept dancing for three hours. They hadn’t exchanged numbers, and so Calderon figured it wasn’t meant to be. The next day, she returned from lunch and the receptionist asked, “So, who is Gabriel?”
“I guess I had told him where I worked, and he tracked me down,” Calderon recalls. It wasn’t long that Calderon and her dancing partner, Gabriel C. Albelo (now the president of TransAmerica Training Management), realized they had found the person they wanted to marry, but Calderon had a mission to climb up in the construction business. Six years later, they went with a group of friends back to Señor Frogs, and Gabriel knelt down on the dance floor.
By the time she and Gabriel were married in 2003, Calderon had struck out on her own. She had broken ground on one of the first major projects along the Miami River, Neo Lofts, and had another half dozen projects on the horizon. Her company, Neology Life, would add 1,500 units to the Miami skyline.
About that same time, Calderon and Gabriel would start a new project. After they had their first daughter, Calderon told her husband that she had always wanted to adopt, and so they headed to Russia for their second girl.
While there, they learned that the girl had a sibling, a sister, lost somewhere in another orphanage. Calderon hired a private investigator, and seven months later they returned to Russia for their third daughter.
All of that happened as the housing crisis struck South Florida. The values of Calderon’s properties tanked, and prospective buyers walked away from deposits they had put on their properties. Calderon went to her lenders and negotiated deals to keep her from bankruptcy.
She took it all on with a bigger perspective — none of that stress compared to losing her father
and grandmother and, even more importantly, the things she had seen in Russia. “Once you walk through a Russian orphanage, you realize how truly blessed we are in this country,” Calderon says. “We will not encounter anything as hard in our lives as what my daughters went through in their first years of life.”
The Next Phase
In 2014, Calderon returned to her mentor’s company to become the Related Group’s president of international and strategic projects division. She says she agreed to come on for two years, and when that was complete, she struck out on her own again.
She’s now finishing up a rehab of the 199-unit Pier 19 Residences & Marina, yet another luxury project Calderon has had a hand in along the Miami River District. The building is a remnant of the housing bubble. It came online in 2011, got passed around from a bankruptcy auction, and when Calderon bought it in September 2018, it needed a facelift.
She gave the lobby a dramatic modern-nautical theme, with thick ropes stretched over the high ceilings and hanging down to the custom couches. She’s keeping the building as a rental, and since buying it, has rented out every unit. She has plans to add a 10-slip marina with access to the Miami River, and an additional phase will come later.
The Big Picture
Nowadays, she brings her daughters to job sites. Her oldest has inherited her grandfather’s ability with numbers, and the middle daughter has become the social one, thriving in meeting the residents.
When her daughters come with her to work, Calderon can’t help but think of those days with her dad on construction sites. “He was always so patient with all of my questions, and I always have to remind myself to do the same with my girls.”
Because who knows, maybe Calderon’s daughters will also have pieces of the skyline with their names on them.
Photography by Nick Garcia. Fashion Styling by Elysze Held. Hair & Makeup by Cesar Ferrette. Styling Assisting by Angelica Poise Ziegler. Photography Assisting by Ricardo Mestre. Location: Pier 19 Residences & Marina.