Just a fraction of the millions of people employed by the construction industry in the United States in 2020 were women. In fact, it was exactly 10.9% of the 10.8 million in the industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While that percentage figure has grown slightly over the past few years, there’s room for improvement. The industry can only benefit from that number getting higher. Gender diversity brings fresh ideas, new perspectives, and potentially a larger labor pool to the industry.
Getting more women involved is exactly why two national organizations highlight this issue every year: the National Association of Women in Construction recognizes it in March through National Women in Construction Week; and the NAHB Professional Women in Building (PWB) Council recognizes it in September.
We’re pitching in by featuring the experiences of five women in the construction industry. They hold a variety of roles and each have a unique perspective. We asked them all the same two questions: How did you get your start? And, what advice do you have for women considering a career in the construction industry? You’ll hear answers from:
• Stephanie Vanderbilt, owner at Coastal Windows & Exteriors
• Marnie Oursler, president of Marnie Custom Homes.
• Piper Stromatt, director of design, founder, and partner of Boutique Living by Curate.
• Michelle Nell, co-owner and sales lead at Acker Builders Inc.
• Jenny Acker, co-owner and president of Acker Builders Inc.
• Cate Black, principal and founder of Rise Architecture + Design.
You can get to know our panelists better by browsing their extended biographies below. As you read their stories, you’ll find that rarely did they follow a straight line to their careers. You’ll be able to benefit from their advice on how to pursue or pivot to your own career in construction, as well as current and future opportunities.
Q: How did you get started in the construction industry?
Stephanie Vanderbilt: For twelve years, I worked with people with hearing problems as a teacher of the hearing impaired. One of the main goals we worked on was receptive language—what your brain knows. Students would come to me about misunderstanding language such as idioms, and I would help them to interpret things more easily. For over 12 years, David, my husband, worked for companies, but those companies were missing two very important values: importance of customer service and quality workmanship. David knew that a home improvement company that did everything the right way would stand out and would earn repeat and referral business. We sat down in the dining room and we talked about this and we both looked at each other and said the perfect person to own the company would be me. I knew he had the necessary experience in the home improvement industry, but thought with keeping education and empathy as our mission, I would be in charge of the overall operations of the company, vision, marketing, and customer service. As a Teacher of the Deaf, empathy has always come naturally to me, by first understanding my students' needs and creating solutions for them. I realized that leaving teaching didn’t mean leaving passion behind, as I could bring that same passion to Coastal Windows & Exteriors. I made it my goal to not be the kind of owner that just paid lip service to a great customer experience—we would actually deliver it. Simply satisfying the customer would not be enough. Instead, we created the type of experience that ‘wowed’ customers, have them raving to others, and make them loyal, lifetime customers. We founded Coastal Windows & Exteriors with the goal of creating a better home improvement company, a company with a customer-first attitude based on educating the community on energy-efficient products. We are committed to giving back and educating the community. All of our energy-efficient green products meet or exceed Energy Star requirements. We run our core business based on a set of core values that include a passion for service, education, and quality workmanship on every job. And in the end, once a teacher—always a teacher.
Marnie Oursler: As a woman in a male-dominated industry, my story is a bit unconventional to begin with. It’s even more so because I also decided to start my custom home building company, Marnie Custom Homes, in 2007 at the start of the worst housing crash in U.S. history. As a fifth-generation homebuilder, I grew up in the construction industry, hanging around job sites, picking up trash and sweeping out construction sites, but I never wanted to pursue construction for my career. After graduating college, I moved to the beach, where I made $11 per hour as a real estate assistant and saw firsthand the type of homes I never knew existed. I studied the market like crazy and quickly became fascinated with real estate. A few years later I was able to scrape together $18,000 - enough to buy a dump of a house and fix it up with my knowledge from working on job sites. I sold it for a six-figure profit and was hooked. I had met a couple that took a chance on me and let me build their first home. This is when Marnie Custom Homes was born.
Piper Stromatt: Dirt runs in my blood. As a young girl, I was exposed to many civil construction sites with heavy machinery and infrastructure, residential projects with my family, as well as many decorating side gigs with my grandmother, who sparked my interest in learning more about interior design. As a young adult I found myself venturing out from my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee to attend The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. There, I enrolled my freshman year into the interior design program. This was something I was excited, engaged, and eager to push myself to learn more about. I went on to shadow and intern during the summer months at companies around the area that serviced the residential industry. The true beginning of my own construction adventure came after a job offer in 2012 at GreenTech Homes in Chattanooga, a small company of seven individuals that built 15-20 homes a year at the time. I helped grow that company, which in 2019 had 17 employees and was completing 100+ homes a year. 2020 is where my latest endeavor brought me, partnering with my longtime mentor and friend to create our own company: Boutique Living By Curate. We service the great Chattanooga area that has been my standing community for over 11 years now, which I get to still call home and contribute to the amazing ever-growing community.
Michelle Nell: Acker Builders is a family business, so I grew up with this. I didn't originally intend to go into the building industry though. In fact, I focused on political science and environmental studies in college. But after college I started working with the company to help out, and ended up really enjoying the process and getting to work on new projects. Today, my main position is with sales, and I help prospective clients with planning their design and the bidding process.
Jenny Acker: I grew up in the home building industry. Our dad used to drop us off at job sites when we were 10 and we would have to get them all cleaned and swept by the time he came back to drive us to the next one. In college I did odds and ends for the business. I didn't plan on going into the building industry though, I got a degree in accounting and went to work for a public accounting firm. But my dad asked me to come work for him and I fell in love with the industry. It still amazes me to this day that you start with an idea that you draw on paper and then several months later walk through the completed house that a family is going to call their home. That’s humbling to me.
Cate Black: I've always had an interest in creating spaces, but I originally studied English and history during undergrad thinking I would be a teacher. I soon realized I wanted something else, and enrolled in the University of Houston College of Architecture + Design to pursue a Master’s in Architecture. I drank the architecture Kool-Aid quickly, and never looked back. What I love(d) most about architecture school was discovering the versatility of design. Design can be: beautiful homes and buildings, thoughtful public spaces, and both environmentally and socially sound. Good design holds immeasurable value. Since graduating in 2010, I have worked in both large and small architecture offices, as well as with a custom home builder. Three years ago, at the beginning of 2018, I opened my own practice - RISE Architecture + Design.
Q: What advice would you give to women who may be considering a career in the industry?
Stephanie Vanderbilt: You must have passion & empathy. I remember as a child, my mom said to me, “You have a gift—a gift of giving.” I feel that you need to do a deep soul search dive and find that passion. My day is considered successful if I can do one thing—educate a homeowner on their home improvement problem. It's not about selling. Have a passion to educate—give that knowledge back and you will receive it 10 fold! Educate them on what they need to know; energy efficiency, thermal bridging or realistic time frames in a pandemic—ha! Make it your primary goal to understand their true need is the magic! Stemming back from my teacher days, my goals are as much about education and communication as they once were. It’s about building a community where people trust you to help them.
Marnie Oursler: My biggest advice for women considering a career in the construction industry is to turn perceived negatives into positives. I did this early on in my career and it has served me well. For instance, I started asking people about their home building experiences. Many said they were intimidated by the process, so I made a point to ensure my clients felt comfortable by truly getting to know them and asking a lot of questions. Some said they didn’t understand all the costs, so I structured my business so all line items were clearly stated and able to be reviewed on an ongoing basis. I also asked clients why they hired me, and most said because I’m so creative. So, I continue to market my company by highlighting my creativity.
In the beginning, there were naysayers who believed I couldn’t build a house because I was a girl, but if you're passionate about something and put in the work, you can achieve your goals no matter what the "industry standard" may assume.
My mantra is always “DON’T GIVE UP!” Especially on your dreams and passions.
Piper Stromatt: I start with one simple thing: be confident. Go out and do whatever you set your mind to. Contact those around you in the industry and ask their advice on what programs they attended, what have they learned, and what advice can they offer. School will get you a plethora of knowledge and I highly recommend getting your degree in Interior Design from an accredited school or online program if you want to learn of all of the “in’s and out’s” of structure, color theory, materials, casework, ergonomics, textiles, mechanicals, and more. The one thing I wish I knew when I get started is that it is OK to ask questions and for advice. That’s what makes you grow and you only grow by asking questions.
Michelle Nell: If you are interested in getting into construction, start looking around. There is a big need in the trades. If you go that route, plumbers, electricians, etc. may help to pay for training. I think taking classes and getting education on the business is always beneficial as well. When I started, I took additional classes on green construction techniques. I also took classes to get my real estate broker license and general contractor qualifier.
Jenny Acker: Women can do anything they want in the building industry. When I first started full time in the business about 21 years ago, there were more biases than there is now. These biases are getting less and less each year, and we need more women to be in this industry in order to obliterate the stigma of a woman being in a man's world. Right now is an amazing time to join the building industry because it is facing a labor shortage. I truly believe any woman who is passionate about what they want to do (be a mason, a general contractor, electrician, etc.) will succeed in this industry. Also don't be afraid to use connections and ask other women for help. Every woman I know in this industry would be honored to sponsor or help another woman achieve their dreams of being a part of the trades.
Cate Black: If you love design, and want to be an architect, spend some time working with a builder too! Ask loads of questions, and pay attention to what is happening on the job sites themselves. Field experience is so valuable and it is not as utilized as it should be in architecture school. There is always something new to learn, so never feel self-conscious asking questions. You will be a better architect for it.
Also, be flexible. Your career path probably won't look like what you originally imagined; or maybe it does, but it no longer suits you. There is nothing wrong with that. Learn to pivot and follow the next right thing, even if it's uncomfortable. I would have never started my own business if I didn't have that capability.
Get To Know Them
Stephanie Vanderbilt is owner of Coastal Windows & Exteriors, a home improvement company operated by a husband and wife team and an Elite James Hardie partner, offering the highest level of service; the ‘best of the best” education and factory trained installation to New England homeowners. Coastal's energy-efficient, green products meet or exceed Energy Star Requirements. Their absolute commitment to the highest ethical standards mean they refuse to engage in high-pressure sales and always put customer education first. Coastal Windows & Exteriors is a top 100 US home improvement company servicing homeowners in the New England area. Follow them at @coasalwindowsandexteriors on Facebook, @coastalexteriors on Instagram.
Marnie Oursler is president of Marnie Custom Homes in Bethany Beach, Delaware and specializes in designing and building sustainable, luxury beach homes using locally sourced materials. She built the first LEED-certified home in Delaware as well as one of the first 95% American-made homes in the country. You may recognize her as host of Big Beach Builds that ran for two seasons on The DIY Network. Marnie is consistently on the front lines promoting women in the building industry, while also providing a strong voice for women leaders in any businesses — and encourages women to start their own businesses. Marnie is also active in supporting the construction community, whether by using locally sourced materials, helping Delaware students get hands-on learning opportunities, or supporting arts education for underprivileged kids. This year Marnie is a top three finalist for NAHB’s Custom Builder of the Year Award as well as Woman of the Year award. You can follow her on Instagram @marnieoursler.
Piper Stromatt is director of design, founder, and partner of Boutique Living by Curate, a design/build firm based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which she helped establish in January 2020. She studied Interior Design and Architecture at the University of Tennessee and has designed more than 400 homes. You can follow her on Instagram at @piper_stromatt.
Michelle Nell and Jenny Acker are sisters and co-own their family business, Acker Builders, along with their brother Matthew Acker. The company, which was founded by their father, Wayne Acker, builds 30 custom homes every year and is based in Wauankee, Wisconsin. Michelle currently focuses on sales, helping prospective clients plan their design and manages the bidding process, and is the company’s licensed real estate broker. Jenny oversees the company’s operations as president. You can follow Acker Builders on Instagram @ackerbuildersinc.
Cate Black is the Principal and Founder of Rise Architecture + Design in Galveston, Texas. She studied architecture at the University of Houston and is a registered FORTIFIED Wise Professional, having received training for designing homes to a more hurricane resilient standard. Cate is on the Board of Directors for Build Galveston, a local community development corporation committed to addressing island residents' need for attainable housing. She served on the City of Galveston Planning Commission for 4 years, including one as vice chair and one as chair, and co-founded Galveston's Own Farmers Market. In 2020, Galveston Daily News honored her as one of the 40 Under 40 recipients, and she was recognized by the University of Houston College of Architecture Alumni Association as the Outstanding Young Alumna. She is married and has a 3 year old daughter, a son on the way, and a 13 year old dachshund who's slightly resentful at the new kids. You can follow her business on Instagram @risearchitecturedesign.