Leading through COVID: Training Girls for the Building Trades, Virtually
In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about their professional and personal lives during the global pandemic. Demi Knight Clark, an alumna of the Yale Global Executive Leadership Program and founder of She Built This City, describes how she remade a nonprofit that teaches hands-on buildings skills for a world forced to go virtual.
Adapted from a phone interview, April 17, 2020.
Q: What led you to found She Built This City?
She Built This City aims to solve the labor shortage in the trades by closing the gender gap. I was in residential construction and leadership for 20 years. I was always the only woman in the room. I had great male mentors and allies; their support let me get where I am today. But there just aren’t enough women in the industry.
STEM jobs are about 30% women now. Manufacturing is about 24%. Construction is 9%. In the traditional trades—plumbing, welding, electrical—it’s 3%. We can do better. We have a long way to go.
For the last 10 years, I tried to bring women into leadership positions. I worked really hard at it and maybe brought in 5 to 10 women a year.
I took a sabbatical last year and attended the Yale Global Executive Leadership Program at SOM. Getting some distance from the intensely insular building ecosystem let me see different approaches to moving forward.
I already had an idea for a nonprofit that would help girls and women spark interest and get the skills they need to work in construction and the trades. My professors and classmates challenged me, saying, what’s stopping you? I think the ethos of Yale SOM is about how you move from talking to doing.
Q: How did you make the move into doing?
I filed for articles of incorporation for She Built This City in August during my second cohort at Yale. I was still working, doing some consulting, going to school, raising two teens, and fundraising for this new social enterprise. We kicked off our pilot projects in December.
She Built This City has three pillars. The first is Explorer Girls, 9- to 12-year olds, getting foundational hammer and drill skills. The second is Builder Girls Club for middle schoolers. It helps girls excited for opportunities they can access in existing high school programs. For now, we skip over high school because there is already programming. The third pillar is Women at Work Trade Circles for women 18 and over helping them choose careers.
Only two out of every thousand girls have actually picked up a power tool by the age of 16. It’s like STEM—actually doing it makes it interesting. Building things gets creativity flowing, familiarity with construction concepts, and even fosters a can-do startup culture.
We piloted programs for each pillar that were very successful. We had waitlists. We had plans to launch 20 more Builder Girls Clubs. We had planned on continuing once-a-month events at the Goodwill Construction Skills Training Center, introducing women interested in the trades with employers interested in hiring them. We had so much momentum before COVID.
Q: Then COIVD-19 hit.
I consider myself lucky. I’ve talked to so many people, in nonprofits and for-profits, who don’t know what they’re going to do next month. They have employees and leases and can’t get responses from the Paycheck Protection Program.
My background in business is do more with less. My board, which includes Yale classmates in different disciplines, encouraged me to stay extraordinarily lean. I didn’t have any payroll. We were about to sign a lease but hadn’t. Being as young as we are, it was easier to adapt.
The question became, what’s the opportunity here? If we couldn’t be in the classroom with our girls, if we couldn’t be in a workshop training women, what would could we do?
We just started pushing tons of content out for families who have kids crawling the walls, for women who are stuck in their houses staring at projects that need doing. We switched our Women at Work Trade Circle events to online webinars.
Instead of the workshop we were going to lease downtown, I outfitted my garage as a tool shop. I started taping and live-streaming content on Facebook Live. We also bought a 1975 Airstream that will be our mobile base.
Starting anything there are a huge number of unknowns. The beauty of this is everyone is having to solve unknowns. We’re all thinking differently anyway.
We were going to be training girls to 3D print construction components—doorknobs or flower boxes—to get them familiar with the technology. Instead, we’re making PPE face shields. Instead of in-person classes, we do virtual popups to train them.
We’re working with United Rentals which has a whole cadre of online classes to donate some to the Women at Work Trade Circle. We can bring the Airstream to a parking lot, keep everyone socially distanced, and they can get their OSHA 10 card, which is required for so many jobs, with a laptop. We can move training to the parking lot of employer X and when we finish women can walk in and apply for a job with all their certifications
Q: Explain the PPE project.
We’ve gotten underwriting from Lowe’s. Their headquarters are here in Charlotte, and they’re phenomenal in terms of both supporting and championing gender equality and the community as a whole.
I started doing the 3D printing and they said, what do you need? What can we do?
They were supposed to be opening a tech center in Charlotte. Those employees are all working from home. They moved 50 printers to employees’ homes. AvidXchange, a local technology company, decided to add another 25 printers to the project. With my 5, we have 80 printers.
We’re producing 800 face shields a day. We’re working with Charlotte Gives PPE to distribute them to healthcare workers in this area. And we’re networking to send them wherever there is a need. We’ll ship a box to Pennsylvania. We’re working to send some to Yale New Haven and to Branford.
We realized it was a chance to get families involved too. We’ve done virtual 3D training for families. They are learning to make jewelry and keychains and learning the design software, TinkerCAD. The kids are picking it up immediately and becoming whizzes on TinkerCAD. I liken it to this generation’s equivalent of my generation fixing the VCR timer for our parents back in the ’80s and ’90s. Families are having these bonding moments as kids are teaching their parents and getting them more curious.
Q: How do you think about the choice between college and the trades?
For most American families, the cost and the amount of debt involved in college is daunting. Now with job losses and an economic downturn, working in the trades could be a very attractive option. And, right now, service jobs are getting de-stigmatized as we see how essential they are.
What I say to parents who are asking questions is that young women choosing this path don’t have to say no to college forever. They can just say, “I’m going to take five years and make $50,000 to $75,000 a year.” Some pipefitters make $250 to $300 an hour. They’re 19 years old and they’re traveling the world. That’s an outlier, but the average salary for jobs in the trades is $50,000 out of the gate, debt free, and all your training is paid for.
I hate the fact that there are so many job losses and furloughs that are putting families in precarious positions. But I hope young women who aren’t sure if they want college or aren’t sure they can afford it look at the trades. I hope parents and society as a whole becomes a little more accepting of this as a satisfying path to a good wage and good benefits.
Q: How do you go about planning with all the uncertainty?
That’s been on my mind as recently as this morning because I have a board meeting on Monday night. I have my financials ready. I have my agenda. I have a three-year plan, which is to be in five of the ten biggest metropolitan statistical areas for home-building. We’re thinking Houston, Washington, D.C., Detroit, New Orleans, and Miami.
With so much uncertainty and so early in the organization’s existence, the three-year plan is a little skeletal, but I think everybody’s is. I look at one year in detailed plans; beyond that we have goals and concepts. Some may happen slower, but some happen faster. Even for the first quarter of this year, we’re leaps and bounds past where I thought we would be. It’s just different.
Daylian Cain was one of my most favorite professors at SOM. He consistently challenged us to take one more resource away, then make your team better. If expanding means taking on leases, that’s a barrier. But maybe we buy an Airstream in every city and as long as we have a program coordinator, we can make our programs happen.
The opportunities are endless, if you can live with a lot of gray.
Interview conducted and edited by Ted O’Callahan.