The recent conversations around gender disparities in the workforce have focused on a variety of things: pay, mobility, respect. But woven through all of those things is culture. Cultural norms shape professional environments on visible and invisible levels, and shifting that narrative takes time, energy and resistance to the status quo. This is especially true in male- and white-dominated industries, where tradition and legacy still play a huge role in how companies grow and change.
In a four-part series with Olay, Man Repeller will speak with seven different women who work in primarily male-dominated fields to learn more about how that change is happening — and what it’s like to be in the middle of it. Below, meet Seyi Falade, the executive director at Cornerstone Barricades, a Maintenance of Traffic service provider specializing in road construction safety. The percentage of women who work in construction is lower than 10 percent. I spoke with Seyi about how she navigates the industry.
On How She Got Into Construction
I don’t have a background in construction at all. My undergraduate degree was in sports management, so I worked in that field for about five years after graduating from college. In 2008, when the recession hit, I got laid off. I had the resources to pursue business school, so I decided to apply. I ended up going to Hult International Business School in London. I graduated, and then I returned to New York and was freelancing. I was in an interesting transition period for a while, just doing some consulting work.
I was visiting my family’s home in Florida when everything changed. My dad was technically retired at the time (he was a civil engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation for over 22 years), but he’d recently started a small traffic maintenance business, I think just to keep busy and stay out of my mom’s hair. He had gotten to a point where he really felt confident in its potential, though, and wanted to invest more time and resources in it. My mom was sort of apprehensive, so she decided to ask for my opinion since I have an MBA. Once I started investigating the opportunity, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
On Building a Company From Scratch and Learning Along the Way
I have to admit, in the very beginning, I was sort of intimidated by the construction plans because I simply couldn’t read them. I like to feel competent and confident about my work, and for me, this was very new. But the more I learned about maintenance and traffic, specifically road construction, the more I started seeing it everywhere.
Any time you’re driving and come across a construction site, you’ll notice stuff like orange- and white-striped barricades and boards with flashing arrows. All of that equipment falls under this very niche field called “maintenance of traffic,” which is federally mandated but leased out by private companies. That’s what I ended up building my company around.
When we were first getting things off the ground and it was just my dad and me, I was really in the weeds. I was wearing a safety vest and boots and putting out equipment. I was waking up at 3 a.m. to go make sure the roads were closed on a construction site before traffic started coming in.
Eventually, I was able to pull away from doing that so much because we were able to bring on more employees. Now, I would describe my role as something similar to a chief operating officer. I’m doing everything from payroll and HR to business development and learning about contracts. I’m also responsible for managing our budget and our growth and tracking our revenue. The list goes on and on.
I feel like this company is my first child, so I want to make sure everything is running smoothly. Even though I’m no longer on the job site, I do get field reports and I drive down at least once a week to check up on things in person. The fact that I know the business from the ground up enables me to have informed conversations about the work we’re doing.
On Working With Her Dad
I really, really value the fact that I’m building something with my dad. I don’t take the amount of confidence and trust he has in me for granted. It’s a lot of responsibility when your parents give you their life savings and say, “invest it wisely.”
My father moved to the United States in the ’70s. He came on scholarship from Nigeria. He ended up getting an engineering degree. He married my mom; they raised their kids. They really embody the classic immigrant story of being really self-disciplined, putting their family first, sending money home, etc. I don’t know if I’m adequately expressing the weight of what it feels like for me, given that history, to invest the fruits of their hard work into something I’m building. When you invest in a business, you are basically writing checks nonstop. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also immensely satisfying to see it pay off.
Beyond that, I had some misgivings when I graduated from business school and saw the amount of debt I owed. I started to doubt the value of my diploma. Having my parents express so much confidence in my level of education, and actually being able to put what I’ve learned to work as I’ve built this business, has really reinforced my decision to pursue a graduate degree.
This business has been a dream of my dad’s, and the joy of helping him fulfill it is something I can’t even put a measure around. Last year, the business grew to a point where we had to purchase a truck. My dad had never purchased a brand new car of his own before. Handing him the keys and being like, “This is the direct result of something we’ve built together” — that was huge.
On Being a Minority in the Industry
I think that on a subconscious level, I knew how male-dominated this industry was before I even immersed myself in it, but it’s a different experience when it becomes your reality. Also, there’s the extra layer of being a woman of color. Oftentimes my father and I are the only people of color in an authoritative position on the job site. Most of the time, the people calling the shots and driving the trucks are white males.
When I first started, I would sit down at pre-bid meetings and glance around, and I wouldn’t see a single person who looked like me. I would be the only woman in the room, and often the only person of color, too. I wouldn’t be able to focus for the first five minutes of the meeting because I would be like, Where is everybody? What happened? This is the state of Florida! This is one of the most diverse states in the country. Where are all the people like me?
I’m happy to be able to say that a lot of the white men in those rooms opened doors for me — literally and figuratively. Many of them advocated for me and recommended me for jobs that turned into multiple contracts. Ironically, I think my otherness became an advantage in that it made me memorable. Whenever someone said “hire that woman,” it was obvious they were talking about me.
That being said, more doors need to be opened for women in this industry. I don’t think the opportunities are very well communicated, or even represented in a remotely visible way. I’ve had lots of conversations about this. The stereotypical careers for women depicted in movies are things like media, PR or event planning. Maybe medicine. That’s a strong maybe. But a woman in construction? Never. How is a little girl supposed to know that she can wear a hard hat and drive a truck and enjoy it if she never sees anyone who looks like her doing that?
My girlfriends were shocked when I started driving these huge trucks, so I told them to get behind the wheel and try it. All of a sudden, they were like, Oh my God, I want a truck. It’s so empowering. You drive differently on the road. You’re telling the big boys to move over. Every woman has that energy inside her: I’m a boss, I’m in charge, I can take you down. Every single one of us has that energy from when we were kids and we were like, Nope, I can beat you in this race, I can climb up this tree faster than you. That drive is still in us as adults, but a lot of women don’t have the chance to properly tap into it.
Whenever I get out of my truck, I get stares. I get stares when I pump gas. People think that if you work in construction, you can’t be feminine. Listen, I still watch my makeup artists on YouTube. Sometimes I go to job sites with a full face of makeup because that’s what I want to look like. Beauty and strength can go hand in hand.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In partnership with Olay.
Photos by Charlotte Kesl.