Created in partnership with Kroger Gardis & Regas LLP.
We’re all familiar with Fix-It Felix, Bob the Builder and even Wreck-It Ralph, but where is Construction Clara, Build-It Barb or even Demolition Debbie? It’s 2023, and while there are women in construction, and they’re bringing their own tools to the sandbox (and we all know our tools are better), it’s still a fairly male-dominated environment. This last month, I had the honor of talking to women in our community who are laying the plans to bring more diversity into our everyday build-outs.
Building a space for the ages – no matter if you start from breaking ground or if you’re walking onto a site for the first time – requires a solid foundation. Melissa A. Hamer, Environmental and Construction Lawyer at Kroger Gardis & Regas, LLP, shared that her entry to construction was paired with a specialization in Natural Resources: “Some may think doing environmental work is just ‘tree-hugging,’ but I have used my talents since undergrad to help the world by cleaning up ‘messes’ like hazardous waste, leaking underground storage tanks and leaking landfills. Going to law school was a natural progression for me to be able to look at the bigger picture and facilitate environmental and brownfields remediation while using tools like insurance and grants to enable the work.”
Before working alongside Kroger Gardis & Regas, LLP, Melissa lived an entrepreneurial life – she’d started a business after having a hard check in her previous office shortly after sharing she was expecting her first son. The work environment was already less than savory, and while she wanted to keep the job and her health benefits, management had less than balloons and pacifiers to celebrate her with.
It was a hardening experience, and Melissa disclosed that she “ended up with pre-eclampsia and almost died during childbirth… and through that experience decided that no matter what work I ended up doing, I would always respect my values and remember who I was. No job would ever take the place of family, but I would never put myself in a position where I had to sacrifice my values or change how I treat others.” Through that lesson, she began her own business (while still pregnant!), achieved WBE certification and learned how to show up as her full self at work. After many years of working to fit in alongside her predominately male co-workers, Melissa found herself breaking out her pink workwear again and bringing her authentic self to the table every day.
Starting a business is never easy, and starting one in a field where there are not many who look similar to you can be even more intimidating. Keianna Rae Harrison, Principal at HER Home Design, did not find success the first time around as a business owner. She opened up to say that one of her key career moments involved re-centering herself with the right business influences – learning that running a business solely centered on customers was not always the best way to grow the business. “I didn’t have the right business team around me, and I made some rookie mistakes,” she goes on, “Luckily, my dad who is a former CEO of a nonprofit agreed to help me restart my business. He connected me to organizations like SCORE, and I’ve found lots of strong mentors there. I now know the value of having a solid business team. And while we’re still customer-centered, we now focus on finding win-win strategies to exceed customer expectations.”
As HER Home Design has grown, Keianna has grown alongside it as an empowering leader. She finds fluidity in how she leads while maintaining ample trust in her gut – and those she brings onto the team. An important lesson of leadership has been to “hire the right people for the right positions, and then let people do their jobs. Leaders create leaders by giving [them] lots of opportunity, feedback and room for error and adjustment.” Not only has she led her team with empowerment top of mind, but she also aims to continue championing those she hopes to see at the table with her. “You cannot be a Black woman in any male-dominated field and NOT be a champion for people of color and women. Showing up to work every day and maintaining a high standard for what we do as a business is the number one thing I do to advocate,” shares Keianna.
She recognizes she is often the only woman in a room, let alone the only Black woman. In all the spaces she grows, she works to bring other women into the rooms she is in as well – minority or not. Making space for oneself can be just as crucial as it is to save space for others, and Keianna adds, “I try to share as many opportunities to see and be seen as an active participant in this industry as possible.”
In 1999, when Akilah Darden, President and Founder of the Darden Group, LLC, graduated from North Carolina AT&T State University (as of 2021, it’s one the largest Historically Black College and University) and began her career in the construction field, there were fewer than 1% diverse women alongside her. As she looked around her surroundings, she was the only woman, the only person of color and most certainly the only woman of color. Although now in 2023 women make up roughly 10% of the construction workforce, she finds that diverse women continue to be underrepresented. The number might feel low, but with more women and more people of color stepping into leadership positions, the future of a diverse construction field seems hopeful.
Akilah doesn’t stop at educating herself and holding her own seat at the table though. She actively “mentors people of color who are looking to become construction professionals, construction owners, trades or even entrepreneurs… even outside of construction. Akiliah goes on, “I champion as much with non-people of color as I do with people of color. I fight hard to gain opportunities for diverse individuals, and I work just as hard to make sure people of color and diverse individuals are ready to accept those opportunities. You have to work both sides to successfully gain intentional and equitable opportunities for people of color.”
As she works to provide opportunities and coach folks to be ready to accept, she also leads with the intention to share and uplift. When sharing about her leadership and the way it has grown in her career, she says, “I lead to show others how to lead. I lead to share my experiences and enthusiasm for the industry and how that resonates with others to achieve their tasks and goals, and [I lead] to train others to know just as much as I do and have access to learn with a focus on their upward mobility. I seek to understand before being understood and guide others to solutions that will allow them to be successful.”