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Fantastic Advice for Women in Design and Construction

Discover top tips from 12 female pros who’ve triumphed over business challenges

Stephan Rabimov

Women have made great strides in business over the years — no doubt about it. Yet almost 75% of small business and franchise owners are still male, says the latest survey from the Small Business Trends Alliance and Guidant Financial. So in honor of International Women's Day (March 8th) and the Women's History Month, we sought advice from 12 extraordinary women who have trumped the statistics, either opening their own businesses or succeeding in a male-dominated field. Here’s what they said.

Embrace the Power of Sharing Your Talents

As a female business owner, you have unique talents that can set you apart from your competitors. For designer Rachel Larraine. of the Design Coven, owning her strengths and sharing them with the world, helps to inspire others and build a thriving business that reflects her values and vision.

“For me, to have this team of designers under me, propels me to put myself out there. It's given me the opportunity to meet people that I otherwise would've never connected with," she says.

"I think it was just a slow combination of finding my strengths, of finding my people. I just love sharing. I love teaching, I love helping people to find the answers on their own. It's extremely empowering.”

Surround Yourself with Respect

By choosing to work only with people who value and respect you, construction professional, Susan Heinz believes women can create a more positive and supportive work environment, which can lead to greater success in their careers.

“One thing I have encountered in my career is that women are often not taken as seriously – at least initially. I saw it in the corporate environment and again when I shifted to our small business in the construction world.  I recall the first time my husband left town and left me in charge of a job site. I had an entire crew not show up the week he was gone despite being scheduled to be there.  It pushed our schedule back weeks as a result and was a huge headache," she says.

"We figured out really quick that they did not respect me the way they respected him.  Needless to say, we don’t work with that crew anymore.  Ever since then, if we feel a vendor or subcontractor is showing that they won’t work well with the women on our team, we find someone else who will work well with us.”

Fight for Your Rights

In the overwhelmingly male construction industry, Julie Bowman is an outlier. Working in construction since 1979, she pushed through sexism and other barriers to forge her career.

“It’s been a long ride,” Bowman says. “I ran into a lot of people that said, ‘Well, you’re a girl. What do you know?’… I had to work twice as hard to prove that I knew the structural strength of a two-by-four versus a two-by-six, and that the designs I was dreaming up and talking about, I could draw up — run them through the engineer and the architect. I probably worked for 20 or 30 contractors, because I’d wind up stuck in the office answering phones and not what I had applied for, simply because I was a girl.

“Some days I had to just fight that hard. I had to learn to work with men in their field, and with the crews in the field, and become one of them — put my female sensitivities aside and let them talk the way they talk and be the way they are, because crews are that way.”

Bowman never gave up and is now a construction estimator, her dream job — and the remodeling company she works for values her expertise and experience.

Define Your Brand

When it comes to establishing a rapport with clients and vendors, interior designer TaVangelia Wren says it’s important to figure out your brand identity and present yourself in that light.

“It’s all about how you want people to see you in your brand. If you are a bubbly professional who always has positive insight for your clients, it’s just how you present yourself. Not everyone presents themselves the same; [it] doesn’t mean that one person is more professional than the other. It’s just allowing yourself to come through in your best light. For me, I’m always being positive with my clients and my vendors.”

Play to Your Strengths 

Stacey Ranieri is president and co-owner of Ranieri Construction in Las Vegas with Tasha Ranieri, her daughter. She advises leaning into what makes you different and honing your strengths.

“We’re very hands-on, and we’re very communicative,” Ranieri says. “That’s the unique thing with us. Personally, I think as women, we’re just slightly more organized. In fact, one of my subs said to me one day, ‘Stacey, you are the most organized contractor I know.’ He said, ‘I think you should teach classes, and I’ve got a whole bunch of general contractors that need to come to your class so you can teach them how to get organized.”

Know Your Worth

Mollie Elkman, author of the book, The House That She Built, believes that educating women about opportunities is an important step towards improving the construction industry as a whole.

“I believe women are innovators, especially in this industry, because they come from a new or a fresh perspective,” she says. “The problem is, a lot of women don’t know about these jobs, and they’re not taught that these are great potential careers for them from a young age — when in reality, the only challenge would be incorrect perception about women’s abilities. 

“When you look at these careers, there is no reason that a woman can’t do any of these. In fact, there are so many brilliant women in the trades, but most of them have been brought in by a male family member. Now, for the next generation of women in the trades, the real initiative is for women to bring other women into the trades.”

Believe in Yourself

Maegan Swabb, owner of M. Swabb Decor + Style in San Diego, says that being self-assured is key to succeeding in business. 

“I think that it’s really all about confidence,” she says. “I remember there was this interior designer named Kathleen Buoymaster, and she was one of the top interior designers in the early 2000s in San Diego.… She told me, ‘Maegan, this industry is all about sales. Really, you’re 75% a salesperson, and the rest of it is about interior design.’

“I really took that to heart, and I feel like that has helped me a lot — having the confidence in myself, being able to walk up to people and not necessarily sell them on my designs, but sell them on me. Having them know that I’m trustworthy and I’m an extension of them and I’m going to fight for what they want. Staying true to that, I think, is what has helped me excel more than anything else.”

Set Yourself Up for Success 

Designer Dee Hurford in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, recommends having a solid system in place to enhance your workflow right from the start. 

“I think one of my biggest challenges I faced when starting out was organization and setting up my shop,” she says. “If I could, I would have told my younger self that before you start bringing in all of the fabrics and other things, first have a purposeful place for everything, and probably set up a policy and procedure manual — or really anything to keep your physical workspace uncluttered.”

Keep Learning and Adapting 

Texas designer Jennifer Kizzee believes in staying sharp and continually learning new things. 

“You have to adapt yourself to technology and to the environment,” she says. “If you think you know everything, you’re really not learning anything.… It’s not necessarily that you have to go do TikToks out there to stay relevant, but you have to think about how this generation does everything. You have to keep yourself current no matter what, and that’s just the reality of it.”

Leave No Stone Unturned 

London designer Sara Levy,  encourages all women entering the trade industries to develop an extensive knowledge of your craft and a detailed understanding of the problems you can help solve. 

“Women can do the man’s job. Do some research so you know what you’re talking about and then stand your ground.” 

Seek Support

Julianne Bull, owner of The Den Interiors in Melbourne, Australia, shares that getting help can make or break your business efforts. 

“For me, a difficult thing was that feeling of isolation that can come with working on my own and not having a team to bounce ideas off, or not having someone to ask questions,” she says. “I really had to go out and find networking groups and other like-minded people and small businesses where we could form a little bit of a group, and talk about some of the challenges that we found in our businesses."

“I would advise people starting out to engage with as many online communities as you can. Try not to figure it out on your own, because you just can’t. You just can’t. I think the industry has been so supportive that I would definitely tap into those communities.”

Create a Culture of Respect

Diana Skellenger, owner of Skelly Build in Austin, Texas, firmly believes that developing an environment based on respect can help women in the construction business thrive.

“My best piece of advice for any females looking to enter the construction business is to create a solid and supportive team,” she says. “When every employee and subcontractor is treated with respect and their opinions are valued, it transcends to all aspects of the business, especially the final product. Support is key in any industry, but construction can be especially challenging — and by creating a strong team, we all rely on each other for advice and share in each other's victories!”

While setting up shop for yourself or joining a company where males rule the roost is rarely easy, stay strong in striving for your goals. These 10 business women have shown that success on your terms is possible no matter what your gender is. With their advice, you’re already ahead of the game.

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Stephan Rabimov

Stephan Rabimov leads Content Marketing at Houzz. Portland resident. Global citizen. Nature loving.

Comments (2)

Join the conversation by commenting or asking a question below. The Houzz team reads every single comment, and we’ll get back to you by email if you need us!

  • PRO
    Lucid 9 Design
    last year

    I am grateful to see a conversation supportive toward women in this male-dominated field. I've been challenged in civil engineering and architecture for 40 years as a woman. My question today is, are we having enough conversations about what men can do to check their prejudices and become more welcoming and inclusive, along with the encouragement for women to know their strengths and stand up for themselves. Women grow through that, but not as much as they can if men welcome and appreciate the value that women and men working together in mutual respect and support can bring to all they serve.

  • PRO
    United Architects, Inc.
    last year

    Love this article. I love that different women are making it in different aspects of construction. I have worked as an architect most of my life, but there was a period during which I owned a construction company. People would call the office and ask for the president. Since I had the general contractor's license, I was the president. I would say to these people on the phone that I was the president. They would immediately hang up. It used to make me mad. I like architecture better. People are more respectful of women architects although many years ago when I started practicing architecture, there weren't many! Today, it is quite a different story and I am happy about that! And if you want to see my work, you can see what a woman architect can do here: https://www.unitedarchitectsinc.com/

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