From Zero to a Million
How one woman combined her vision and experience with Clark Construction’s Strategic Partnership Program to guide her specialty contracting company toward their first million
“Construction isn’t innovative.” “Millennials don’t want to work hard, let alone work in construction.” “The industry is basically a boys’ club.” Whether at a jobsite, at a convention or in the media, chances are you’ve heard these comments time and time again. Those who work in the industry know these stigmas don’t reflect the industry as a whole, and those who don’t simply haven’t met Jennifer Ramos yet. This Washington DC-based woman of Salvadoran descent can give you a million reasons why these statements simply aren’t true. After her father, a multi-skilled construction worker for 23 years lost his job due to a management change, Ramos sprung into action. “It was kind of an ‘aha moment,’” Ramos explained. “I really wanted to be able to create a job for him and have him work as his own boss because he does have so much knowledge. I also wanted to create not only a path for my family, but a path for myself and something that I was really becoming passionate about was breaking into this male-dominated industry. “
Ramos took matters into her own hands and founded Jen Contracting Group, LLC, a general contractor specializing in commercial interior work. “I knew nothing at the time about what it really was to own a construction company, but I was willing to learn and, just in general, my parents always taught me that with hard work, anything is possible. Growing up with that kind of mindset, someone like me, who knew very little about construction was able to self-teach and learn by way of looking to opportunities from industry leaders and people that are a lot more knowledgeable than I am.” One of those opportunities included participating in a free program, organized and taught by Clark Construction. It’s called the Clark Construction Strategic Partnership Program, an intense, nine-month class that meets weekly and educates subcontractors and trade workers on everything from construction management and finance to project delivery and turnover. “I attribute much of my success to that program because without it, I wouldn’t have had the structured knowledge that I gained about things like financial statements and accounting, insurance and bonding, architectural blueprints, and so forth. It’s been an instrumental part of my growth as a business owner.” Growth is an understatement. Having founded Jen Contracting Group in 2015, Ramos’ firm is poised to make a million dollars in 2018. She sat down with StrXur to talk about her journey, where her firm is headed, and how it feels to give your own father power—and a paycheck.
StrXur: Tell me a bit about your firm and the ultimate vision for it.
Ramos: We’re based in Washington DC, and we are a subcontractor of commercial interior work. We do drywall, framing doors and hardware, and we recently started building a design team, which is really exciting for us. I started as a contracting firm because I really wanted to learn the construction side of it, but ultimately, the goal is to become a design-build firm.
StrXur: What sparked your interest in starting your own firm?
Ramos: Well, my father was being laid off from the construction job of 23 years. He worked ever since he immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, and it happened when I was graduating from college. I started an internship at a state governing agency that regulates the contracting business and industry. So I was learning a lot about contracting and I was seeing how many opportunities there are for women-owned businesses and how little women on contracting businesses there were in Virginia. We have a team of 20 now, but we started off with just three. Me, my dad, and I had hired an estimator.
StrXur: What was your educational background?
Ramos: I studied public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, so I was reading a lot of the Virginia Code and regulations as it pertained to construction. My internship helped me too, because I was learning all the regulations and how to stay compliant. I think a lot of business owners that want to start a contracting business don’t have that benefit of thinking, “Well, I need to know the state code and the regulations so that I can be compliant, not get in trouble, and also build the safest structures that I can build.” I think that was very beneficial in terms of the ability to understand and abide by public policy, so it was helpful in that sense, but it wasn’t really that helpful in knowing how to run a construction business.
StrXur: How did you pick up that knowledge?
Ramos: I found a program with Clark Construction called the Strategic Partnership Program. It was a nine-month program that really provides business owners, especially small business owners and minority business owners, with the management and business skills that they may not really have as people who haven’t gone to school for construction management or project management or gotten MBAs.
StrXur: From your perspective, how valuable is a program like that for the industry?
Ramos: I think it’s very valuable for the industry. In my class, around 30 business owners graduated from the program, and a lot of them didn’t have experience in commercial contracting. A lot of the participants were residential contractors, and not only did it give them the knowledge to enter into the commercial side of it, but also it gave them (and me) the knowledge of working with bigger contracting firms and how to do business correctly with bigger contracting firms. The program also showed us what those large general contracting firms and industry leaders look for in a partner and in subcontractors. I imagine the road would have been a lot rockier without that base of knowledge that I gained from the Clark Strategic Partnership Program.
StrXur: What other value did you take away from graduating from Clark’s program?
Ramos: Even just having that [graduation] certificate. When I’m relationship building and trying to get in with a new contracting firm to really establish partnerships, I often present my certificate and say, “Hey, I’m a graduate of the partnership program at Clark, and this is what I learned, and this is how long I was there, and this is who I know now.” So, it’s been helpful in that way too.
StrXur: What was it like getting your first job as a company?
Ramos: One of the pivotal moments for us was getting that first job; having a general contractor and take a chance on us. We knew that my dad would be able to step foot on a construction site again. I was cold-calling companies, I would share with them that I was a graduate of Clark Strategic Partnership Program. I shared with them all the work I had been doing and that I had really been self-teaching and asked them to give me a chance. I was very open and transparent with the fact that I’m a woman-owned business. My father is the one who has the 20-plus years of knowledge in construction, and we have a team to be able to do this.
StrXur: That’s amazing. Tell me about getting your dad not only that first check but also the empowered opportunity he deserved.
Ramos: It was a very emotional moment. It was also a bigger moment than just receiving the first check and being able to write him a check, you know, because I think that was the moment when we were like, “We can do this!” It was really big for us that someone would even take the chance and that my dad would now have the opportunity to do this, but with him at the helm.
StrXur: As a minority woman who owns her own firm, what has your experience been like in the industry?
Ramos: The biggest challenge has definitely been having people take me seriously. I think that because of my age and the fact that I am a woman, a lot of people don’t take me seriously. I’ve been in meetings with staff where the owner of a general contracting firm will speak to my male counterparts or my male staff and totally ignore me. It’s kind of a lack of respect, but unfortunately because it happened so much, I’ve gotten used to it and now I know how to react in those situations. But at first, it was a very hard thing to deal with. It was almost creating doubt in myself because it’s like, “Nobody believes in me, so why should I believe in myself?” I was dealing with that psychological aspect of it; staying firm in my belief in myself, having confidence in the knowledge that I was acquiring and all the work that I was putting in. And by way of having good communication, showing that my appearance doesn’t have anything to do with what Jen Contracting Group LLC can provide you; because at the end of the day, what matters is that we can get the project done on time, on budget and done well.
StrXur: Was your experience in the Clark program different?
Ramos: Yes. When I worked with the state regulatory agency that regulates contracting in Virginia, every board member was male and there were very little minorities. In the contracting industry; you rarely saw women; rarely any Latina women at that. And so my perception of the construction industry was completely different. At the program, when I was able to get in a room with people like me, it was very encouraging because there was one older Latina woman there that I could look up to and say, “Hey, you have a successful construction company, and this is what I can look up to and aspire to.” And I felt that that was important for me, but also important just to see and have different perspectives. I think that these programs really bring that to the industry. They bring diversity, inclusion and different perspectives; I think that that can only help the industry as a whole.
StrXur: You’ve actually partnered with the program. Can you explain that?
Ramos: We’re helping to spread the word about the program towards women-owned and minority-owned businesses. A lot of the time, these businesses don’t know about these opportunities. I know Clark wants to get the word out more and be able to reach more women-owned or minority-owned businesses so that they know about the opportunity and can take advantage of it.
StrXur: What advice would you have for other people looking to go into construction or construction ownership? Would you have any special advice for women or minorities who are also in that sort of group?
Ramos: I would advise them to acquire a good technical understanding of construction and seek out learning opportunities. I think that’s the most important advice I can give. I think what has pushed me the most is being aware that I don’t know it all. And being aware that there’s always a lot to learn. Knowledge really is going to help you have a more successful company. There’s no “one path to success” in the contracting industry. That’s why I decided to share my story. I’ve gotten so much amazing feedback from women saying that I’ve encouraged them to look more into the construction industry, and I hope to see more women, not only in my own company, but in the construction industry in general. It’s really important to try to educate yourself and then continue educating yourself so that you can do the best job possible.