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Penny Pompei was left seething last year when on a trip to Capitol Hill, she bumped into a male senator. Pompei introduced herself as the executive director of Women Construction Owners & Executives, a trade group that represents women in the construction industry, and attempted to start a conversation when the senator cut her off abruptly.
“He looked at me strangely and said, ‘Wow, women own construction companies? Who knew!’” she remembers. “I was immediately frustrated. I mean, c’mon, it’s 2012.”
WCOE is celebrating its 29th anniversary. The association boasts a membership of more than 1,600 women-owned construction companies, many of which report revenues of around $50 million per year.
According to Pompei’s calculations, there are more than 700,000 construction companies in the U.S., 70,000 of which are female owned. That number is growing says Melissa Schneider, founder of Athena Construction Group in Dumfries, Va.
“I am definitely seeing more women enter this industry,” she says, adding she and her business partner, Amber Peebles, are both general contractors. “You don’t see as many general contractors but you do see more women starting dry wall companies, flooring companies and the like.”
Another industry that is seeing an uptick in women owners, and women customers, is the automotive industry.
Five years ago Rami Derhy, owner of Signal Garage Auto Care with two locations in metro St. Paul, noticed an increase in female customers. When several women exhibited anxiety entering his store, Derhy instituted employee training on how to treat female customers.
“I tell my guys to be patient and make sure the customer understands everything,” he says. “This is an industry where women have been taken advantage of; I don’t want them to feel that way in my shop.”
In addition to employee training, Derhy offers free, yearly clinics for women on basic car maintenance. Attendees love the clinics, he says, because he doesn’t focus on selling and the information provided makes participants feel empowered and informed.
Signal Garage is spotlessly clean, a nod to its focus on female clientele. A chandelier hangs in the bathroom and high-end sofas are artfully placed around the waiting area, making the room reminiscent of a beautiful home. Thanks to his efforts, Derhy now says his customer base consists of 80 percent women.
Barry Soltz thinks Derhy is on the right track and wishes other garages would follow suit. As president of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association, he says more than 60 percent of car repair business customers are women and numbers are growing. Several major companies in the space offer what Soltz calls “sensitivity training” on proper ways to speak with women.
“You can’t just talk down to them and think you'll get their business,” he says.
Two blocks off Madison Avenue in Manhattan’s Midtown East neighborhood, sits Spiff for Men, a salon designed exclusively for men that offers everything from haircuts and manicures to pedicures and massages. Owner Danny Kerr opened his shop in 2008 and says business is going well.
“We do 20 to 30 manicures per day and around eight pedicures per day, but our core business is haircuts,” he says. “My clients are men 35 to 45 years old; guys who care about taking care of their skin and hair. I think men are more educated about that these days.”
Male-focused salons may be popular in major metro areas, but, according to Brad Masterson, spokesperson for The Professional Beauty Association, it is more common to see female salons add services for men.
“Within the last five years, salons have been creating male-specific services and it is opening up another revenue stream for businesses that beforehand were ignoring 49 percent of the population,” he says.
Chris Pegula is also pushing business stereotypes. Back in 1999, Pegula’s then-pregnant wife came home with a newly purchased diaper bag. It was decorated with pink flowers.
“I looked at it and said there was no way in hell I was going to wear one of those,” he remembers. Four years later he launched Diaper Dude, a company that sells manly-looking (think camouflage and dark colors) diaper bags that, well, don’t look like diaper bags. At first business was slow, but picked up after a friend of a friend landed his product on The Wayne Brady Show.
Today, Pegula is a father of three and has six employees based in a downtown Los Angeles office. More than 90 percent of his business is wholesale; the rest is online.
What’s been the response to a man creating a stereotypically female product?
“Women are super happy about it because it shows that men want to be more involved in their kids' lives,” he says. “I think some men judge it, but I also think that is a product of my own insecurity. No one has ever said anything negative to me about it.”
Athena Construction’s Peebles offers a few words of wisdom for people trying to break into an industry dominated by the opposite sex: “My advice is the same as it would be for starting any business: Do what you love, be positive and never quit.”
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