Women in Construction Week: Rita Brown turned obstacle to empowerment
See all the women featured in our 2019 Women in Construction series here.
Like many other small business owners hit by the Great Recession, Rita Brown found herself suddenly back on the job market after she was forced to close shop — which, in her case, was the family business she ran with her husband, Detroit Drafting.
Despite having 20 years of construction industry experience under her belt, Brown was being turned away from positions she was more than qualified to hold. “What worked against me was I was a woman and I had children,” she told Construction Dive. One potential employer — ironically enough, a female herself — outright told her, “I would love to hire you, but you have five kids.”
The situation left her feeling dumbfounded and angry, but also motivated. Brown's familiarity with the construction industry was wrought by a lifetime of exposure and education through her father's occupation as a civil engineer. She found herself doing "grunt work" throughout high school for his company, and after working in the industry for the better part of her life, Brown no longer had patience for “obstructionism,” stereotypes or self-pity. So she turned the obstacle into an opportunity to propel both herself and the industry forward, weathering the storm and eventually starting fresh again with a new business in the construction trades.
In addition to launching and serving as president and CEO of Brown Construction Collective + LLC (BCC+), which corners a niche in steel detailing and related services, Brown is also dedicated to advocating for true diversity in the industry.
Commitment to change
“She has a true commitment to change — changing industries, changing workplaces and changing the opportunities available to diverse, traditionally underserved groups,” said Lee Graham, executive director of Operating Engineers 324’s Labor Management Education Committee. “In our industry, that often has meant women and people of color," said Graham, who serves on several boards with Brown — adding that when it comes to changing the industry's perception, "there are few people working harder and more successfully," than her.
When she and her husband had to downsize the staff of their own company, she saw that many of the women, more so than the men, were at a loss, unsure of their next move and unaware of the range of opportunities available in the field. “If you don’t possess that knowledge, you don’t know where to turn next,” she said.
So she launched Project Accelerate to provide women with a primer. The free seven-week course, which is supported by the National Association of Women in Construction, starts with an overview of the construction, engineering, design and building trades before taking a deep, hands-on dive into specific career areas.
While the volunteer-run program focuses on exposing women to the career possibilities in construction, Brown also works from within the industry to expand those opportunities. She provides workforce development consulting services to help companies design and implement diversity and inclusion strategies, serves as director of NAWIC’s North Central chapter and is the incoming chair of the Associated General Contractors of America's Diversity and Inclusion Council.
Having won over clients such as Commercial Contracting Corp. through her Birmingham, Michigan-based BCC+, which she launched in 2014, Brown has secured relationships with partners such as Anthony Fanone, director of CCC's construction division. “There is a lot of pressure on detailers for quick and accurate drawings," he remarked. "Our steel output depends on it, and BCC+ always delivers."
Despite the demands of the detailing field, Brown acknowledges the many commitments that women and men face outside of the workplace and provides tools to help employees find that elusive balance, including flexible work schedules and arrangements to work remotely or bring children to work.
Brown’s advocacy for women in construction is not going unnoticed. Her recruiting efforts have earned her several awards from NAWIC, and in 2017 she was invited to discuss Project Accelerate at a White House policy briefing focused on expanding careers for women in the construction industry.
Striving for authentic diversity
Despite her focus on promoting opportunities for women, Brown advocates that “authentic diversity,” which she says extends beyond gender and ethnicity, is what’s needed to truly move the industry forward.
The 174 women who have graduated from Project Accelerate, for example, cover a wide demographic range. “We've had everyone from holders of GED diplomas to [those with] double master’s come through the program,” she said. “Entry-level to CEO. Tradeswoman to business owner and 18- to 67-year-old participants.”
As if her altruistic approach weren't enough, Brown's services help businesses' bottom lines as well. As a data-driven business owner, Brown knows that there’s nothing quite like dollar signs to encourage industry players to embrace diversity. “If you actually have this diversity, you are making more money,” Brown says. “That message may be the only way to get through to the ‘old boys’ club.'"
“Construction companies, like all companies, are in business to make money. So putting some dollar signs behind why diversity and inclusion make sense is very powerful.”
Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Associated General Contractors
And she has the numbers to back this up. Last fall, Brown partnered with AGC’s director of diversity and inclusion, to write “The Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion in the Construction Industry,” a paper that laid out the “measurable and tangible financial results” of diversity and inclusion.
Gender-diverse companies are 21% more likely to have financial returns above national industry means, and companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 33% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians. Diverse companies also see 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee and an 83% increase in innovation.
“Construction companies, like all companies, are in business to make money,” Huneke explained. “So putting some dollar signs behind why diversity and inclusion make sense is very powerful.”
Although the paper hasn’t been out long, it’s already making a difference, Huneke said. “I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from members whose executives have now committed to focusing on D&I, saying, ‘Let’s figure out a way to implement this.'"
Leveling the playing field
Although Brown often works with other women in the industry, including Mashell Carissimi, founder and CEO of JMC Electrical Contractor LLC, she and other female leaders believe men and women should be judged by and hired for their skills and knowledge. “We advance each other based on our abilities to execute,” not on the basis of gender, Carissimi said. “There are no shortcuts.”
Along those same ability-based lines, there’s another outdated aspect of the industry that Brown rallies against, which is whether it’s better to pursue a college degree or learn a skilled trade. Brown's approach is to promote a mix of both, believing that the most beneficial training for future workers likely will be “a hybrid education including a strong practical application” along with higher ed coursework.
She is already preparing some women for that future. In Project Accelerate, she said, “The conversation is never about an either/or in terms of degrees versus apprenticeships, but rather the fact that education is the path, and it's all education."