3 takeaways from 3 decades leading a woman-owned construction business
Editor's Note: The following is a guest contribution from Lina Gottesman, president and founder of Altus Metal, Marble and Wood.
In 2000, a journalist writing about women in construction asked me why women would choose to go into a traditionally male-dominated field. She noted that even though we were well past the era of the women’s liberation movement and progress was evident in many areas, the glass ceiling of corporate America was only slightly cracked — and the concrete ceiling lagged even further behind.
I said: "It’s a challenge, and women want challenges. Women want to compete with the boys. We’re cut out from that competition at a young age, when we’re told that the Little League is not for girls."
Seventeen years later, I still stand by those words. I believe I was speaking for the many women who dared defy the odds and launched their own construction companies — I know I was speaking for myself. I will always embrace, never shun, a meaningful challenge.
Growing up in a family-owned stone and masonry business, I longed to own and run my own construction firm. An opportunity presented itself in the late 1980s, and I took a deep breath and went for it. I decided to name the firm Altus after a Greek mythological bird, a symbol of excellence. I knew from the start that for a woman in a man’s world, the bar was set high — you had to be better than your competitors. And, as I said to the interviewer, I was not daunted by the challenge. In fact, I was more motivated than ever.
I was also not intimidated when shortly after launching Altus Metal & Marble Maintenance, I approached a loan officer at a bank. I explained to him that my husband would be working at Altus, but I would be the president. He suggested that it would be best that I return with my husband to discuss the loan. I did not waste a moment to make my views on his hesitancy very clear. Shortly after, I was granted the loan — without any need for a meeting with my husband.
Today, 28 years since its founding, Altus is a highly successful and respected woman-owned business (WBE) much sought after by public agencies and private companies. We have played a role in restorations at such iconic New York City buildings as Grand Central Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Columbia University, Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building, the New York City Public Library and Macy’s Herald Square.
Through the years, I have met lingering biases and have been encouraged by changing attitudes.
Knowledge is power
Have I encountered skepticism about my ability, my expertise and my authority due to my gender? Yes. Have I heard whistles and catcalls? Yes. Yet over the years, I have experienced over and over the truth of a statement that I live by: Knowledge is power.
It will always be up to the woman to prove herself. To achieve success, a woman in construction needs to be not only as knowledgeable as her male peers, but more so.
I have studied and trained in every aspect of the trades I work in, and not only do I know the technical procedures inside and out, I have applied my skills on the job time and again — sometimes much to the surprise of clients and workers. The more knowledge they see, the more power I gain and the more respect I earn.
The need for women role models
Each time I have achieved success, my response has been to extend a hand to other women seeking to make a career in the field. Though every inch of me is a competitor, my early upbringing taught me to value collaboration as well.
To further my business, early on I joined networking groups geared to construction and to general businesses that developed female leaders. I felt strengthened by the positive energy that surrounded me at the sessions and events. As the years went on, I saw myself transform from a student or mentee to a role model or mentor.
The gratification I have received from sharing my experiences as an entrepreneur has been immense. I have participated in the Trendsetters Network conference for inner city girls at Pace University, in New York, the golf program with the Girl Scouts and the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute at Hunter College of The City University of New York.
In 2015, when I received an achievers award from the Long Island Center for Business and Professional Women, my daughter, herself a mother of three daughters and a licensed social worker at a healthcare institution, shared some heartfelt thoughts with me. She called me a "leader," a "trendsetter," a "true humanitarian" and a "mentor." She wrote: "My mother leads by example and I hope that I have made her as proud as she makes me…I would not be who I am today without her. The highest compliment someone can give me is that I am like my mother." Surely, her words are the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me.
Time for a paradigm shift
I firmly believe that women in business are far more intelligent, capable and resilient than they get credit for. Until women are in positions of authority and respect, they will never begin to change the overall perception our society has of women’s abilities.
A harsh reminder of this truth comes when scanning the websites of Fortune 500 companies — there are still very few women among the board of directors. This is even more evident in major construction companies where women in the C-suite are truly a rarity. A real paradigm shift needs to occur here: When diversity is present, the policies will be impacted positively and women will finally break the glass ceiling and, eventually, the concrete ceiling.
The young women of today are eager to achieve, yearning to excel and longing to find role models to inspire them. They are enthusiastic about seeing strong women in top leadership roles — roles of power, prestige and strength. It is more important than ever for women who have succeeded to give back, to help the next generation and the women of any age who are striving to succeed. Only when we are able to reach out and to feel inspired by the success of others can we all draw strength.