Creating Equity through Education, Networking and Advocacy

Association of Women Contractors
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

The Association of Women Contractors (AWC) grew throughout the years. Once composed of 10 members, today, its membership has grown to over 220. Members are women-owned businesses that bid work in the construction industry such as general contractors, specialty subcontractors, material suppliers and even trucking companies.
In 2017, eight local and state government agencies in Minnesota undertook a joint disparity study to examine whether or not minority and women-owned businesses operated on a level playing field. They sought to find out if discrimination affected equity in the market and what could be done to address this issue. Disparity analyses compare the percentage of entity contract dollars going to minority- and women-owned firms with what might be anticipated given the relative availability of MBEs and WBEs for individual entity contracts and subcontracts.

The findings were not shocking. Disparity is a real problem affecting minority- and women-owned businesses in construction. The results show a disparity rate for women-owned businesses at an average of 50. The Association of Women Contractors (AWC) has been addressing this challenge for women-owned businesses in the construction industry in Minnesota since 1995.

AWC offers education, networking opportunities and advocacy in Minnesota, and the state will remain the organization’s geographic focus. “Our growth alone tells you that we’re succeeding as probably one of the fastest growing trade associations in the State of Minnesota over the last ten years, and I think we want to stay in this sandbox,” Executive Director Barb Lau explained.

“I think there is a lot of risk when you go national because what we provide really has to do with the right people, the right support and having the connections,” she continued. These connections are something that AWC has worked hard to achieve.

The organization’s inspiration was drawn from a presentation sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 1994 that was meant to encourage women to empower each other. The presentation was attended by a number of women business owners who took heed of the message.

“Women business owners in the industry at that time felt like we could do this; we could actually empower each other and actually do something to move the industry forward, so they started the Association of Women Contractors,” said Lau.

“It started with some women business owners in highway heavy construction, but now we probably have sixty percent of our members that do commercial, vertical construction and another twenty-five percent that are doing highway heavy and then fifteen percent that does residential.”

AWC also has associate members. For instance, professional service firms such as accountants, insurance agents, and lawyers that do business with women-owned businesses, the general contracting community at large, and government agencies are types of associate members.

“There has to be at least fifty-one percent of our membership that is women-owned business. And when we say women-owned businesses, we are referring to women-owned businesses that are construction businesses; that is, they set foot on a job site or are involved in the design of a building and anything in between,” said Lau.

AWC promotes opportunities for its members, monitors legislative matters and encourages the development of public policy and industry practices that directly advance the industry while strengthening the standing of women-owned businesses in construction.

“We’re a member organization. Education is heavily in our structure, and we feel that is how we help businesses: the more they learn, the more capacity they can grow, and the better they can become,” explained Lau.

AWC developed a training room that is equipped with the resources and technology necessary for the organization’s monthly education program. This program was developed to replace the time-consuming full-day workshops that were previously offered by the organization.

“We are continuing our two-hour, once-a-month educational program, and we also partnered with the Associated General Contractors here locally and put on a day and a half conference around construction,” noted Lau.

Networking is crucial to the mission of AWC and the success of its members, according to Lau. “Networking is so important to building relationships with potential clients and with each other,” which is why “everything we do is centralized around a component of networking.”

Three years ago, AWC introduced monthly Member Mingles that bring together its members for informal networking hosted by the members in their space.

Another networking opportunity that is exclusive to members is what AWC calls the general contractor round robin. This event is best described as “speed dating with general contractors.” Members get the opportunity to meet with over a dozen project managers and estimators from local general contractors in one afternoon. This level of one on one would take a small business owner over a year to complete on their own.

Through watching the interactions of this group, Lau has discovered that women network differently than men. “Women need to develop relationships and trust with each other first. Once they have that, they are open to sharing involvement, dialogue and peer support,” Lau said. This creates a unique energy at AWC events.

One of the most important efforts of AWC is its annual FUNdraising golf tournament, which is held to raise money for its scholarship program. The organization’s inaugural golf tournament was held in 2001, and while it was a marginal success, there was promise that in the years to come it would grow in both size and impact.

In its first year, the golf tournament raised $1,000, followed by $1,200 the second year, and started to grow exponentially after that. To date, over $150,000 in scholarships has been awarded. Last year, ten $2,000 scholarships were awarded to deserving individuals.

“The mission for this endeavor was to increase the number of women in the industry by supporting them financially for education, because it’s pretty well known that future business owners in construction are ex-trades people or project managers. So the hope was if we could increase females entering the industry, we could increase female business owners of the future,” explained Lau.

Scholarships support academic endeavors such as architecture, engineering, construction or project management. They have also recently been opened to apprenticeships to increase female retention in the program.

“We hope to support them during their apprenticeships, because oftentimes, females, once they enter construction, don’t stick with it for whatever reason. This was our way to give them a little bit more incentive to continue on through their apprenticeship and to build a support system with our members,” said Lau.

AWC also facilitates the City of Saint Paul’s Construction Partnering Program that brings together large majority-owned firms with small women and minority-owned businesses.

Partnership is imperative to AWC’s continued success. Some of its partners include Mortenson Construction, Kraus-Anderson Construction and McGough Construction which all have long-term partners that they have grown through mentorship to the next level of business capacity.

The organization meets with and advises industry entities like the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Airports Commission, MetCouncil, University of Minnesota, City of Saint Paul, City of Minneapolis, State of Minnesota Department of Administration, Department of Labor and Industry and Minnesota Sports Facility Authority.

Being an organization that makes an impact requires a team effort, Lau noted. “You have to have good staff around. I don’t do it by myself. I do it with a great staff and visionary board that choose to make those great goals and strategies for me to implement.”

Some of the objectives of the organization moving forward will be to promote the industry and the ability of its members to compete for projects in the State of Minnesota. One way this will be achieved is through a new website that will be launched in June.

According to Lau, the website has been revamped three times since she joined AWC but she insists that this effort will be unlike anything that has been done in the past. The website will serve as an invaluable resource for its members and the industry, providing data and a platform to disseminate information and educational resources.

AWC is also part of many equity committees dedicated to subcontracting practices, where it advocates for the interests of its members. “One such committee was Governor Dayton’s subcommittee on contracting practices. Within the first year we made a lot of changes to the state processes and put a focus on the best practices for small business inclusion in contracting. The $310 million State Capitol Restoration project highlighted what can be done with a strong equity plan and a dedicated General Contractor, JE Dunn Construction.”

The US Bank Stadium project was also a wildly successful project. The well thought out equity plan and independent oversight of the project ensured that the project was transparent. Mortenson exceeded the aggressive targeted business and workforce goals set on the project. “We were able to achieve participation by women- and minority-owned businesses on the project which was the largest vertical project in the State of Minnesota’s history. Best of all it was done utilizing Minnesota-based businesses.”

Lau also looks forward to her new appointment on the Community Advisory Council to the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C. which advises the federal government on issues that affect small businesses financially.

To overcome challenges and to assist its members, AWC looks to continue to increase its member benefits and services such as education, networking, advocacy and representation. Lau noted that when AWC was founded, “There weren’t any associations like this at the time, and still, to this day, there is only one that we are aware of that operates the same way we do.”



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