Lasenta Lewis-Ellis didn’t plan for a career in the construction business. As president and CEO of LLE Construction Group, however, she now provides an array of services to clients in South Carolina, with general contracting, project and construction management, and facility and maintenance and management. She has a host of degrees and qualifications, and is truly dedicated to not only growing her business and proving herself as a woman in a highly competitive and traditionally male-dominated industry, but also to sharing her knowledge and expertise to help guide women and youth as they work to establish themselves through their own small businesses.
Prior to striking out on her own, Lasenta was working in the field, but was let go. It was 2011 and the construction industry was not in good shape. She had already obtained her general contractor license while working with her previous employer, and was approached by a client to bid on one of his projects to provide general construction, maintenance and project management over numerous school district projects.
“I bid on that job before I’d lost my own job,” she says. “I was so secure in making good money and knowing I had a check every few weeks I didn’t want to rock the boat; it was my safety net. When I lost my job, it was unexpected and a really big impact for me. I realized I’d helped this company grow to a multi-million dollar company. I had to convince myself to get out there and make it happen.”
During her first year of college, Lasenta’s mom lost her house to foreclosure, something that affected Lasenta greatly and in some ways led directly to the life and career path she ended up following.
“I didn’t know what that meant; I just knew she was hurting,” she says. “I decided to change my major. I moved back home and went to Midlands Technical College, and got my degree in three years with the goal to design and build my mom a house. That was the whole reason for me. I went strictly to do that, and I figured out I actually enjoyed it and it’s where I was supposed to be.”
Within three months of graduating, her mom passed, but Lasenta’s drive and dedication to her newfound passion remained strong. Years later, winning the contract she’d bid on was another boost to her new sense of purpose.
“I thought to myself, ‘this is really going to work!’ It was exciting and scary, realizing I now own my own construction group and having to do a good job because I’m representing women in a non-traditional field.”
She represented them spectacularly, hitting the million dollar mark in revenue within the first three years. Never content to rest on her laurels, Lasenta works hard to ensure she’s accountable to her business with the acumen to actually run the company and be the best CEO she can be.
With an Associate of Architecture Engineering Technology degree, she went to work for the University of South Carolina, designing and delivering renovations for them, learning and developing a passion for construction. In the years since, she has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience that she gladly shares with women and small business owners who look to her for guidance. She lists a number of qualities that benefit anyone hoping to go into business for themselves, including setting goals, perseverance and a healthy dose of self-confidence.
“When I first started, I set goals for myself, not only for business financially, but also goals for myself as a leader and how I would grow,” she says. “You can’t have a ‘give up’ spirit. You have to be willing to really push through even when things aren’t working. You also have to be willing to accept failure and not take it personally. Not succeeding is an opportunity for you to shift or to hit reset and see what you did wrong and how to do it better.”
Taking initiative and maintaining passion for your work are also vital qualities for success, she says – even when you feel you don’t rightfully belong in the industry, which she says has happened to her through the years.
“You have to put yourself in a position to be in the room and at the table. Self-motivation is also important, because you may not have people in your circle who are encouraging you. You may have people telling you it’s impossible, and that you can’t do it or women don’t do that. So you have to be in a position to motivate yourself even when people don’t think you can do it.”
With the goal to create a sustainable business, Lasenta continues to serve the community and solve problems, while networking and building relationships in the industry. Being heavily involved in the community also means trying to provide exposure and encourage more women and girls to get involved in both construction and business in general by holding outreach and entrepreneurship programs, sitting on several boards and organizing different initiatives in South Carolina specific to helping women.
“When I was growing up, there weren’t women who looked like me who were in construction or architecture, and there weren’t any African American women or men in the industry to be the example. It’s so important to expose our young people to what it is that we do and share it with them so they can see the possibilities,” she says. “I’ve heard boys at schools say to me, ‘women don’t go into construction! That’s not what women do.’ Then I show up and I share what I do and say they’ve never seen a woman in construction. It melts my heart and it’s the purpose of what I do.”
Along with cash flow being an obstacle to a growing business, Lasenta says being a black woman in construction presented its own unique issues at first as well.
“There were times that men showed very little respect, so I’ve had to deal with that pretty much my entire career,” she says. “I need to know what I’m doing and have the knowledge to learn all there is to learn about construction, so when they talk they’re not speaking a foreign language to me, and I’m able to help control that conversation because of my knowledge in the work we’re doing.”
That commitment means she’s now the “go to” person for many contractors who call her for advice, often with communication issues or relationship concerns within the industry. They refer to her as a “connector,” someone who is great at building solid relationships and solving problems.
“Some still look at me and say things like, ‘oh you don’t run a real construction company,’ but I don’t care. I’ve grown my business. Not because I’m a black female, but because we do really awesome work and we do build good relationships where people want to come back and work with us and we’re very resourceful. If we can’t provide it, we know where to go find it.”
Mentoring in the community is one of Lasenta’s top goals, and she’s currently the Entrepreneur-In-Residence for the Richland County Library, coaching small business owners by motivating and encouraging them and sharing how to grow their businesses. Her sessions ran from August to November, and she was booked with six to eight owners a week. Indeed, helping others is something that remains very close to her heart.
“When a student comes to me two or three years later and they say because of the time they spent with me, this is what they’re doing now, and this is how I shaped their mindset – to me that’s success,” she says. “When I can have an impact on people about what they can do and how to look at business, that is true success.”
Coming from unemployment and years spent as a single mother to running a multi-million dollar company for more than eight years is a true accomplishment, and Lasenta strives to keep moving forward in the years ahead, with plans to diversify and gain more clients, and to ultimately move her company toward a franchise model. In the next 18 months she aims to increase revenue to between three and five million, and she has acquired a mentor to help her move into the federal government space. She also started LLE Consulting this year to conduct more small business coaching, as she sees the impact it’s having on the community in helping small business owners continue to succeed.
She’s also created several scholarships at Midland Tech, one for a single parent and one for any woman in the architectural program, $1000 a year for the past four years. “When I can come up with programs in low economic areas [and teach people] you don’t [necessarily] have to go to college to get a job – that you can learn and grow and build a business – that to me is success,” she shares.
Setting a new standard in the industry was a goal from the start and one she’s achieved on many different levels, and one she’s proud of.
“This is what doing good work looks like,” she says. “I didn’t want to take people’s money and not do what I’m supposed to do. I wanted to show them I’m passionate about what I do and hold myself accountable to my business and the people who work with me. Now in Columbia people say, ‘if you want to learn. you need to call Lasenta.’ I’ve accomplished that. They see me as that ‘go to’ person when they need something, because I’ve earned a reputation that we have to do this thing right.”