Debbie Hollonbeck didn’t initially set out to co-run one of the top-rated construction and renovation companies in Atlanta, instead choosing a career as an art teacher.
But after renovating her house and getting several compliments from friends, she and her husband started buying investment properties to renovate and rent out to supplement their income.
And in 2007, when the couple decided to move from Atlanta to the eastern suburb of Decatur, Hollonbeck opted to try leading the full build project herself, with the help of another local female builder. The project went so well that Hollonbeck quit her teaching job and joined the builder’s firm, working there for several years.
By 2013, Hollonbeck was ready to go out on her own. Her husband connected her to Virginia Van Lear, another local builder also looking to start her own business and the two created Level Craft Construction, a firm so busy nowadays that it is building around 15 custom homes a year.
What is it like to run a company in such a male-dominated industry?
“With the exception of a few times when husbands of clients have been condescending to us, which is really few and far between, I’d say the majority of the time people contact us because they want to work with a woman-owned construction company,” Hollonbeck said.
By the numbers
While Hollonbeck’s experience is encouraging, it isn’t the norm. Women are still in the minority in the industry, making up roughly 11% of the construction workforce, according to the most recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s more, women in construction make up just 1.5% of the entire US workforce, according to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC).
Many of the women in the industry work in office or administrative positions, not in the field.
“Yes, I’m seeing more women in the industry, but most of those women are on the administration side and less on the tech operations side,” said Akilah W. Darden, a trained architectural engineer and founder and president of Indianapolis-based executive construction management company The Darden Group. “It can be tough as an engineer on a construction site; a lot of women decide they just don’t want to fight and constantly prove that they are exceptional, which is required.”
Hollonbeck sees a similar trend. “I wish I saw more women owning and running sub-contracting firms like drywall companies and electrical firms,” she said. “I am seeing more women in management positions, even some general contractors and I always gravitate to women who run their own companies because, honestly, they will often give a better product. Their ability to manage and pay attention to detail will be better than that of a man.”
Words of wisdom
For women looking to enter construction, Darden and Hollonbeck have some advice.
“Don’t take anything personally, don’t take rejection personally and don’t take comments against you personally,” Darden said. “Particularly if you want to start your own company, know that, as an entrepreneur, you will be doing 15 times more than you might have done as an employee. If a deal falls through, politely ask why and then use that feedback to get a ‘yes’ from someone else.”
Hollonbeck recommended that women walk into meetings and construction sites with confidence. Trust that you know what you’re doing, she said, and if you don’t, know that you can learn. “Construction is like any other form of project management; I knew very little about sticks and bricks early on, but I learned,” she said. “None of us walk in knowing everything, even if we have the degree. Have confidence that you will be able to think on your feet, problem solve and manage your time.”
Darden recommended that construction entrepreneurs try to do something they fear at least once a week and to never underestimate the power of networking.
“Network with everyone,” Darden suggested. “A person may not even be in construction, but you never know – they may know people who are, and those people might be able to help you later on.”
Katie Morell is an independent journalist and writing coach based in Bend, Oregon. Read more of her work at katiemorell.com.