Taking action to address challenges of underrepresented construction industry businesses

Established in 1885, Builders Exchange of Michigan is a not-for-profit construction association that focuses on “reporting on the bidding opportunities in the commercial construction industry,” says Elizabeth Bovard Strong, executive vice president. Providing members with details of projects within the planning and bidding phases throughout the state as well as networking and training opportunities, the Builders Exchange of Michigan is currently expanding its offerings.
Elizabeth Bovard Strong, Courtesy of Circle Image Photography
Through its Construction Allies in Action initiative, which launched in mid-2020, the organization is expanding its focus on assisting underrepresented individuals within the industry. The purpose of the Construction Allies in Action initiative is twofold, says Bovard Strong.

“The first [purpose is] to create more opportunities for minority contractors by making sure they have the core competencies necessary to thrive in a commercial construction environment,” Bovard Strong says. “The second [purpose] is challenging project owner Allies to be [an] agent of generational change by proactively partnering with minority construction companies to mentor and help facilitate change.”

After on-going “discussions about the systemic problems within the construction industry that were preventing [underrepresented] contractors from surviving, let alone growing” Bovard Strong says “[t]here was a need for a program that was action-based with both accountability and transparency in place.”

Launching the Strong Foundations Program

One opportunity to begin this engagement and provide support is through their upcoming Strong Foundations Program. “With the financial support of Allies, certified minority business enterprise (MBE), women business enterprise (WBE), and disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) construction companies will be enrolled in the Strong Foundations Program, [which will offer] a robust series of classes that will help strategically position them for growth and success,” says Bovard Strong. Sessions provide education on topics including legal, talent development, financial and sustainability considerations.

As the name highlights, participants will be able to learn more about these types of key business areas. “Failure happens when companies don’t have core competencies such as bonding, legal advice and capital,” says Jodi van Haren, owner of Advantage Mechanical Refrigeration and Construction Allies in Action steering committee member.

Furthering diversification “allows for opportunities that are typically not equitable for people of color, unless they are lesser positions and not in leadership,” says Lisa Knight, chief executive officer of DV Apple Logistics LLC. “There needs to be a deeper understanding of differences and how to navigate those spaces with a willingness to listen and change the way business has always been done.”

Additional challenges created by COVID-19

In addition to the systemic concerns, some on-going challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the construction industry, many businesses are being impacted. “Since nonessential construction projects were shut down in 2020, there has been a shortage of work and employees have been laid off even though rent is still due, and bills have to be paid,” says van Haren.

“Many underrepresented businesses are also small businesses, therefore if COVID-19 spreads [into] their workforce, it can hit them harder and they can be left without enough staff to keep on schedule,” van Haren says. Having a working knowledge of business, support and access to resources may be an opportunity to help offset some of these concerns within the industry.

“Diversity is important in every space and coupled with the capability to function and relate effectively in these situations, it is good for communities as a whole. The construction industry is sustainable and offers good wages and benefits with many jobs available. The more we are intentional with being inclusive, the better off our communities will be,” says van Haren.

Creating building blocks for the future

Looking ahead, Bovard Strong is optimistic about the potential of the new year. “Our goals for 2021 are to launch the Strong Foundations Program and enroll as many certified underrepresented contractors that need this program and engage project owners as Allies,” she says. “A big part of the success of this Program will be having Allies become intentional with inclusion and mentoring,” says Bovard Strong. The foundational courses for the Program will start in March. 

“In the creation of this Program, the hope was to give minority contractors, both new and those not experiencing success, the building blocks to not only create a great business but also to form strong relationships with the owners of projects,” says Bovard Strong.
Lisa Knight
Knight is looking forward to participating in the Program. Having been in the construction industry for two years now, it will provide her with “support, partnership and assistance in unchartered waters.”

For fellow underrepresented business owners or contractors, Knight shares the value of forming connections. “Connect with other businesses or organizations that are truly dedicated to inclusive practices and support equity,” she says. She also stresses the importance of having personal support. “Connect with mentors that are willing to support and help you navigate the waters without judgment,” she adds.

The long-term sustainability of these types of initiatives will require on-going support and participation from all parties.

“Underrepresented contractors should put in the time for business development. Show up to every networking event that’s offered in the area,” says van Haren. “You never know which contact you will make that can lead you to the perfect project. Your reputation is key.”

For Bovard Strong, she encourages community members to step up and get involved as well. 

“Support this Program so minority contractors starting out have the ability to perform with their peers. The purpose of this initiative is to highlight real conversations about what real problems are being faced, but we’re not looking to just talk this through. We want action items that are measurable and transparent. We need to engage with project owners to make this happen. We need change,” she says.

Knight also feels there are steps that developers can take as they look to better engage with a more diverse pool of contractors. “Put your money where your mouth is,” she says. “There are many qualified businesses out there that want to be successful — what that looks like is larger organizations giving someone a chance to prove themselves and the organizations not setting them up for failure.” 

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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