Why I Chose a Career in Construction

In 2017, the United States construction workforce was only 9% women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And of that 9%, only 6% were Black women. I share these numbers with you to say, I didn’t go into construction because it was full of peers who looked like me. Because if these numbers sound low to you today, imagine what it was like in 1999 when I entered the industry.

So why have I stuck with construction, started my own construction management firm, and even created a course to share my experience with other career-launchers and career-builders? I want to share my story with you so you can get to know me better, and maybe get inspired to join the construction industry yourself.

The Roots of My Career

As a little girl, I loved my Legos. So many girls do, and boys too! Building and creating are some of the things many people love. By the time I got into high school, I was able to take drafting and learn that I excelled at it. Paired with my high aptitude in mathematics, this inspired me to want to be an architect and an engineer. Since my parents had always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, I determined that was what I would be.

As a young Black girl in Northern Virginia, of course, the same message didn’t always get conveyed to me by the rest of the world around me. My guidance counselor would not even sign for me to go to an HBCU. Through it all, I found a counselor who would and I enrolled at North Carolina A&T State University, where I majored in Architectural Engineering.

Upon graduation, I took a job as an architect—and on the second day, I knew it wasn’t for me. Not because I wasn’t good at it, but because I didn’t see opportunity for all my talents to be equally leveraged. I also loved to work with people, negotiate, problem solve and manage projects. So I set my sights on construction. I knew as a construction manager, I could speak design to Architects, talk function with the engineers, negotiate with stakeholders and be actively involved in each community I was building in. The industry definitely didn’t choose me, but I was determined to achieve. “The key to every human being success lies in his mind.” – Earl Nightingale.

Challenges and Achievements

In 1999, no one was interested in something different…a young, black, female engineer that wanted to build. Discrimination was the norm. There was no limit or boundaries on what people would say to me. “I am not going to help you,” was maybe one of the nicer negative statements I heard on repeat. I was told my career would be short-lived, if for no other reason, because the dominant people in the industry were committed to making sure it would be. 

But I am proud to say today—they were dead wrong. I have not been alienated from the field I love. I have not been dismissed, marginalized, or silenced. In fact, I have prospered. In part that is because I stepped up to the most challenging and complex tasks I could find. I was the youngest person at my company to be promoted to project manager, so I could run a $35M project in Washington, D.C. Remember what I said about complexity? This was an 11 story project with 5 levels below street level, and we were building 10 feet away from the oldest Catholic church in D.C., 5 blocks away from the White House, on one of the busiest streets in America.

Not to mention, I also became a mother of four, two sons and two daughters. I got promotions each time I returned to work. In between, my engineers tried to take my job and my pride. But if I was not going to be defeated by two twin infant daughters, I knew I was better than giving up. I put up a fight. Tired, exhausted, sleep deprived–despite that, I won. 

Over two decades, I managed construction projects across 15 different market sectors, worth over $2 billion. And I finished every single project on-time and on-budget. “Be greater than one’s greatest expectation of you” – Michelle Obama

Yes, those established people who told me they wouldn’t help would say now those results are impossible. But that’s because they haven’t learned to work with the efficiencies I have learned or overcome the challenges I have faced. My knowledge base, experience, and success is something no one can take from me. And eventually, after moving from Washington D.C. to Indiana, I decided to go into business for myself. “It’s always impossible until it’s done” -Nelson Mandela

profile image of akilah darden

Founding The Darden Group, LLC

Starting my own business meant the opportunity to leave a legacy for my kids, as well as being able to live my life the way I want to. This step allowed me to have the time to be a parent, wife, sister, daughter, mentor, and community advocate.

In January 2021, my business celebrated its one-year anniversary. What have I learned in this time? Well, I have been able to apply some of my basic personal values and business savvy to achieve my own success. These include:

  • Listening.
  • Engaging.
  • Watching mannerisms and reactions when others are speaking.
  • Asking “what are your pain-points” and being able to storytell.
  • about how I can add value to the organization.
  • Seeking to understand before being understood.
  • Researching the organization…but not too much to seem like I know it all.
  • Not everyone will be happy for your success.

There will be more people to tear you down, than encourage you to be successful and to keep going. Confidence is key and needs to be put on daily.

Measuring success as an entrepreneur is different than measuring success as an employee

Most importantly, believe in yourself and keep going.

Still, I haven’t figured it out. I may solve something in the moment, but then I look for ways to do it better…and how can I now share what I figured out to help the bottom line for my clients and myself through our online course offerings.  I still look for challenges, and still often try to do something that I fear. 

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

Advice for Entering the Construction Industry

Speaking of being a mentor, if you are considering entering the construction industry, especially as a minority, woman, or both, here is my advice for you. “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou

First and foremost: do it. This industry will not only make you happy with opportunity but is full of rewarding opportunities. My favorite part of choosing this career is the difference my work makes to the companies involved, individuals finding life long careers, and communities. I also have amazing opportunities to share stories of my experiences and projects with others and to be an example of what is possible for my kids. At the same time, it’s important to come in knowing who you are, and no matter who that is, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Then again, that’s true of any industry. 

No matter what career you choose, it is essential to find ways to navigate and strengthen your ability to find success. But even more so, your ability to admit you are facing adversity and ask for help from supportive peers will help you in life. 

Whatever you choose, plan your work and work your plan…and always make time to help others. “Lift as you climb” and share opportunities and people with others.

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