Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems

Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems

Some of the greatest businesses start with getting fired. That’s what happened to Edith Yanez, co-founder of Latinas in Construction. She was working for an association of contractors in Washington, DC, but was appalled with the way management treated women. When she complained, she was fired.

But, as with so many great success stories, she didn’t let injustice diminish her. It fueled her ambition to make a real change — not just for herself, but for all women, and particularly Latinas, who find themselves belittled and made invisible in the lucrative construction industry.

Latina construction leaders, Edith Yanez and colleague

Today, she and co-founder Tatiana Ahlborn run Latinas in Construction, an online education network that provides training in Spanish for women who want to work in the male-domination building trades. Their online, easy-to-follow courses include blueprint reading, professional estimating, 3D design and modeling, interior design, English, and Math. And thanks to energetic fundraising, they can provide scholarships to women who cannot afford their subscription service.

Too often, small businesses think the biggest social problems are beyond them. But read on to discover how Latinas in Construction tackles problems of gender discrimination in the $1.8 trillion construction industry.

From Owner to Activist

In early 2020, Edith Yanez was the owner of Heidelberg Design and Build, a successful decorative concrete company in Maryland. Equally, Ahlborn was a project executive at Absolute Builders, a DMV carpentry company. They had beat the odds and joined the small sliver of women who reach the pinnacle of the construction industry.

Women Owned Construction Companies Statistics | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

In the United States, only 13% of construction companies are women-owned, and of those, only 9% make more than $500,000 per year in revenue. In short, Yanez and Ahlborn were the elite of the elite. Yanez, for her part, attributes her ascent to a workaround: she has a background in marketing and design, which gave her an advantage in the decorative concrete niche, where construction know-how meets an aesthetic sensibility.

But being the boss didn’t exempt her from mistreatment. “If you’re a woman in construction, you have to prove yourself every time. To the client, the vendor, even to your employees. The assumption is that women lack the technical skills, the strength and the leadership skills to manage a crew. And, even if you’re the business owner, they think you should be in the office doing the admin work — not out in the field.”

She recounts the story of a woman who finally gained a promotion to supervisor. But the workers on her crew refused to follow her instructions, and would actively undermine her leadership — even if it meant the job suffered. The construction owner, who didn’t understand the unhealthy dynamics in the field, simply assumed she was incompetent and fired her.

Edith Yanez Quote | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

But Yanez knew that the disadvantages women face don’t end with active discrimination. Sometimes, even well-intentioned employers don’t see the subtle barriers to entry and success. Often, there are no women’s bathrooms at construction sites, and protective equipment wasn’t sized for women.

“The construction industry loves to claim it’s friendly to women. But that usually means putting four smiling women together for a photo opp. But they’re not willing to face the hard reality that gender discrimination is real, it takes many forms, and it’s hurting the industry.”

The pandemic opens the door for women in construction

But the pandemic changed everything. And Yanez and Ahlborn were among the first to see the silver lining for women in construction.

Covid Bad Times Created opportunities | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

“I saw that many Latinas were at home, either because their jobs in housekeeping or other service industries were on pause, or because families expected they should be the one to stay home with the kids. I read this article about how domestic violence in Latino families was on the rise — people were at home, unemployed and stressed, and women were bearing the brunt.”

At the same time, the construction industry surged on. Deemed an essential industry, it continued to hire through the pandemic. Yanez and Ahlborn sensed an opportunity.

Unemployment was at a record low. Employers would have to look outside their traditional networks to find qualified employees.

At the same time, 22% of Hispanic men employed in the United States work in construction — a greater concentration than any other race or gender in any other industry. So, women had fathers, brothers and husbands who they’d seen in the building trades.

Finally, construction jobs tend to pay twice as much as so-called “pink collar” service industries, such as home healthcare workers, housekeepers and restaurant servers. So women in construction could keep their entire family afloat or establish the financial independence to escape an abusive environment.

That’s when they set their sites on building the labor supply to meet that demand. She already knew she had an aptitude for education. Since 2010, Yanez has been working with a number of non-profits to train the Hispanic community in business and marketing. Plus, the duo was in the right location: Washington, DC boasts the highest share of women in construction in the U.S., so they could benefit from the network effects of local trainers, expertise and women-business owners.

So why not use their expertise and clout to build an NGO that would give Latinas their entry ticket into the construction industry?

construction worker statistics

Latinas in Construction today

Three years later, Latinas in Construction has built a thriving network of trainers, mentors and volunteers who support women at all stages of their journey to success in the building trades. They offer online courses on technical issues from blueprint design to 3D drawing, a hugely popular English class each Saturday, and guidance for those who want to start their own business, or obtain a general contractor’s license in Maryland, Virginia or DC.

“We started with these technical classes, teaching estimating or interior design. But then we realized that these women don’t have the math or English skills they need.” Now, they offer Math instruction tailored to the building trades, with a library of videos on topics such as how to convert from cubic feet to cubic yards.

Today, the network continues to grow. There’s an active Facebook group, where students exchange best practices, offer support and learn from mentors. And Yanez is finding Latinas in Construction is gaining a reach beyond the DMV. Recently, a Latina engineer in St. Louis called her, saying she had heard about the good work Yanez and her team were doing in Washington, DC and wanted to volunteer to help Latina high school students discover their path into high-paying engineering jobs.

4 Questions if you want to have a Big impact as a Small Business Owner | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

Small business owners can solve big problems, whatever your industry

Leverage your expertise to predict the future: In 2020, when everyone else was watching Netflix in their pajamas, Yanez and Ahlborn were drawing on their years of construction experience to anticipate a seismic shift in the labor markets that opened up unprecedented receptivity to women construction workers. They created the labor supply just as construction companies were looking everywhere for new employees.

Treat your identity as a compassion-seeking superpower: Yanez doesn’t efface her identity as a woman, a Latina and an immigrant. She leans into it, and it gives her a perspective that most entrepreneurs in her male-dominated industry lacked. Where other construction firms saw disinterest from female employees, she saw systemic inequalities based on gender, culture and class.

Gina Raimondo Million Women in Construction Initiative | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

Mine your network for influential allies: Ahlborn is the former president of the DC Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction and on the board of directors of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington. As prominent local business owner, both Yanez and Ahlborn marshaled personal networks cultivated over two decades to recruit donors, volunteer trainers and employers ready to hire their graduates.

Make your own luck: True, Latinas in Construction happens to operate in the epicenter of women in construction, which granted them a hearty tailwind. But the same can be said of thousands of other construction firm owners in the DMV, and none of them started a movement. The co-founders were bold, perceptive, and stitched together seemingly unrelated macroeconomic and social trends, identifying opportunity where others heard only noise.

10 ways small businesses can affect change

You don’t have to operate in a trillion dollar industry or found an NGO on top of your day job in order to make a dent in huge social or economic problems. Not all of us can summon the energy and courage of Yanez and Ahlborn. But just because your business is “small” doesn’t mean your impact has to be.

10 Ways your can affect change | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

Whether you run an HVAC company or an executive recruiting firm, there’s a lot that you can learn from Latinas in Construction’s successful activism.

  1. Create Local Jobs: Did you know that two out of every three jobs created in the past 25 years came from small businesses? Make sure the jobs you create are long-term, offer a career path and come with good benefits. Talk about lasting change.

  2. Offer Sustainable Products: Small businesses can take a stand against environmental degradation by offering eco-friendly, sustainable products and services.

  3. Support Community Projects: Even if you’re not ready to set up your own NGO, your business can volunteer staff time and expertise to projects that address pressing social issues like homelessness, education gaps, or food insecurity.

  4. Promote Diversity and Inclusion: Don’t let your workforce suffer as Yanez did. By implementing diversity and inclusion policies, and really trying to understand your employee’s lived experience, you can combat the inequality and structural obstacles that keep some people from realizing their potential.

  5. Implement Fair Trade Practices: Don’t just blithely accept your supply chain. Adopting fair trade practices can help small businesses play a role in combating exploitation and promoting economic equality on a global scale.

  6. Educate the Public: Host workshops or events that educate your local community. A tutoring company could provide a free SAT class, while an electrician could teach a webinar for new parents on how to safety-proof their homes. Don’t underestimate the social value of your expertise.

  7. Offer Sliding Scale Pricing: Implementing a sliding scale for pricing services can make essential services like healthcare, legal aid, or educational resources more accessible to underserved populations.

  8. Go Renewable: Investing in renewable energy solutions for business operations can help combat the larger issue of climate change, setting an example for others in the community.

  9. Promote Mental Health: Work is more stressful than ever, but you can address the rising mental health crisis. Promote mental well-being among your workforce by de-stigmatizing those who ask for help. Ensure your company insurance reimburses employees for counseling or psychiatric care, or partner with mental health organizations to give your employees a support network.

  10. Lobby for Change: Big corporations may spend millions on fancy lobbyists, but vote-seeking politicians know that the vast majority of Americans still work for small businesses. COVID-19 forced legislators to recognize the importance of small business to our country’s economic health, and empowered groups like Small Business Rising to use their collective voice to lobby local, state, or federal governments to enact legislation that addresses social or economic problems, from minimum wage to environmental regulations.

Small business aren’t just employers. They’re community boosters and big-picture problem solvers.

Who says your small business can’t be mighty?

Latinas in Construction is proof that small business owners can wield outsize influence — and that they can capitalize on their expertise, network and background to tackle the thorniest social problems.

Businesses solve problems, period. Even my neighborhood ice cream shop slakes my sweet tooth and cools me off on a hot summer day. But the greatest businesses zero in on the painful, systemic, world-changing problems.

Fortunately, you don’t have to run Tesla or Patagonia to be a change-maker. Don’t underestimate the ripple effect of a small business with a big mission!

Small businesses are nimble, making it easier to innovate and adapt. So, roll up your sleeves, put your purpose at the forefront, and let’s make change happen. Your community and the world need you to step up, now more than ever.

Book a Strategy Session | Latinas in Construction | How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems | Case Study | RS Gonzales - SME Business and Marketing Solutions

Ready to turn your business into a force for good? Let’s get started!