By Marilyn Grabowski
According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), women make up only 9.1 percent of the construction industry today. Which means that I am regularly asked, “Why construction?”
I usually lead with, “Because it took a woman to perfect filling a pothole,” but the real answer is that I saw a huge business opportunity. After nearly 16 years in this business, I’m used to being one of – if not the only – woman in the room at industry events. I have learned a lot of valuable lessons from this experience that I hope will help other women who are building businesses in male dominated fields survive and thrive:
Embrace your unique points of difference – both as a woman leader and as a business.
Red is Atlantic Infra’s brand color. Our trucks are red, our team is known as “The Red Team” and I wear a red dress anytime I go out to represent our business. My rationale is that, when you’re in sea of blue suits at, say, an Asphalt Association meeting, you can either blend in or get noticed. Getting noticed gets you into conversations that let you make your pitch of why your company is better than – and different from – the rest. I’m known as “The Lady in Red” throughout my market, and that’s OK with me. It’s a strategy that works.
Our connection to the color red isn’t an accident – Atlantic Infra was founded On February 14th – and it’s something we love to embrace. Clients, vendors and partners look forward to an annual Valentine’s Day gift ranging from hot sauce to customized chocolates as a thank you for their support and to celebrate The Red Team.
Show them, don’t tell them.
Striking the right balance between running your business at the office and getting out there to pound the pavement is critical. When people see you out in the field, they recognize that you have hands-on expertise and know your process from start to finish. In construction, my visibility on the job site went a long way towards building my credibility in the field.
When my business was new, people would call and ask for an estimate. I’d say, “Sure, I can help you.” They’d say, “No. I need an expert.” “Yes. I can help.” “No. I need someone to come out and look at the project.” “OK.” So, I’d go out and look at the project and discuss the details with them, demonstrating the depth of my knowledge in the field. Finally they understood.
Seek out strategic partners.
In male-dominated fields, partnering is particularly important for women business leaders. As an “outsider,” you’re not invited to the table as often as your male counterparts – particularly when your company is small. Marjorie Perry, president and CEO of MZM Construction & Management Company in Newark, NJ, has grown her firm into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Her biggest lesson, and one that she shared with me is, “You’re never going to get bigger if you don’t partner.”
I took Marjorie’s advice to heart, building strategic relationships with two established construction businesses. As a result, my business has since grown tenfold; in fact, these partnerships have allowed me to build two sister companies as a result: Atlantic InfraStructure and Atlantic InfraTRAC, in addition to my original firm, Atlantic Infrared.
Support other women in the field.
If we want to move closer to gender parity in construction and other male-dominated industries, we need to be proactive champions of and for other women. Consider joining a diversity council – or starting a diversity council. Become a mentor and role model for less experienced entrepreneurs. Seek out opportunities to speak to college, high-school or middle-school students. I like to support young women entering STEM careers through mentoring and an organization called WISE (Women in Sustainable Employment), a program designed to introduce women to the utility construction arena.
In London, Roni Savage, the British Black Business Awards’ 2018 Businessperson of the Year, commits to “making some noise” about construction careers by regularly sharing information about engineering and other career choices with schoolchildren. This is exactly what we need to be doing to shine a light on the opportunities for women to shine in careers they may not have otherwise considered.
In industries like construction, where female representation hovers at less than 10 percent, there’s tremendous potential for growth. These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned that have helped my business grow, and that I hope will make a difference for both those women currently growing businesses in these fields and the next generation of women in construction and beyond.
As early as 2008, New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners (NJAWBO) recognized Marilyn Grabowski as a Top 30 Women in Business. The first company, a paving business called Atlantic Infrared was founded in 2002, and works to restore potholes for major utilities. Atlantic Infrastructure was established in 2009 to mill and pave and Atlantic Infratrac was founded in 2011 to provide services to support Call before You Dig (811). Infratrac places flags and paint marks for the largest utility in NJ.