Will you provide a summary of your career and how you became the executive you are today?
I had a desire to become an engineer beginning at the age of 10 years old. I participated in programs like DAPCEP (Detroit Area Precollege Engineering Program), summer science programs at the University of Michigan and Southern University. I love math, science, and the arts. My dream was to be an engineer and an architect. The images and concepts of buildings, infrastructure, and bridges excited me, so I decided to pursue a degree in structural/civil engineering at the University of Michigan.
As a resourceful and inquisitive young adult, I pursued getting a job with MDOT during the summer seasons, which provided me with a breadth of knowledge in the field of Civil Engineering and Construction. I began learning about roadway and bridge design. I worked on a survey crew. I was a construction inspector of roadways and bridges. I ran a material testing on-site plant. I conducted density, concrete, and soils testing. Imagine an eighteen-year-old, black woman engaging with and providing instruction as a Construction Inspector to a predominately male dominated field of construction contractors. During those five seasons of work with MDOT, while earning my degree, I learned some key lessons that I have carried to this day 32 years later as an executive, consultant, and engineering professional. Some of these lessons have included:
Being an executive and entrepreneur in several businesses, how and why did you decide to diversify your talents?
Although my career has taken me in diverse directions (transportation, environmental, and water resources with public and private firms), they all relate to the field of engineering. When I graduated from college, I wanted to get exposed to various areas within the civil engineering sector. As a recent graduate, I wanted to gain exposure to the world of environmental engineering, so I secured a position with Waste Management, another male dominated field. I absorbed valuable technical information in permitting, environmental regulations, disposal of non-hazardous waste streams, site engineer of two landfills and hauling company, health and safety manager, environmental auditor, methane gas to electricity cogeneration facilities manager, and many more skills. These important factors continue to impact the field of engineering today.
After I worked at Waste Management, it was important for me to get back to Detroit. Although I was born in Natchez Mississippi and have lots of family including my biological father in the South, Detroit is my home where my immediate family and friends reside. Although a structural engineer by degree, I was eager to continue to expand my learning and began working as an engineering consultant. I worked for a consulting firm for 11 years, which was a wonderful learning experience. Not only did I learn that in a small office you need to take on multiple roles, I learned invaluable lessons in leadership and how to interface with people to build long-lasting professional relationships. This experience was my springboard for forming my own engineering firm working on amazing projects Q-Line construction inspection, I-94 design and construction, Detroit Airport Smith Terminal Demolition, Hudson’s Skyscraper Material Testing, Detroit Water and Sewer Department and Great Lakes Water Authority to name a few.
What are some of the key lessons you have learned as an entrepreneur that you would like to share with other women considering starting their own company?
First and foremost, your relationships and network are everything. I have always treated my clients and employees like family. It is important to get to know them as regular people and to ensure that I am meeting their needs and objectives. Because of the relationships and partnerships I formed, my firm has grown each year.
Who have been your most important mentors in your life?
One is my mom. I learned from her, early on, that you do not need to have a loud voice to have a great impact. She is soft spoken, confident, and direct with her words.
Another mentor of mine was a black, female, PhD, licensed engineer I met at the age of 18 at MDOT. As a young adult, I was eager to learn more about her professional career as a Civil Engineer and her path she took in establishing her engineering firm. She inspired me to start my own business and engineering firm.
A third who is an owner of a consulting firm where I worked a few years. He was a male minority. I chose to work with him because as a minority owner, I was interested in the different aspects of his business and the challenges he overcame. He was supportive, offering, “Give me a date to start your own business, and I will give you your first contract.” He was true to his word.
What have been your greatest challenges you have faced as a woman engineer? Business owner?
The number one challenge is competing with large firms when you are a small business. To overcome this, I learned the importance of partnering with other firms, small and large. Credibility is critical, along with integrity and delivering what you have committed to the client.
The second greatest challenge is making sure you have enough capital. I was fortunate where I did not need much capital to start my business. However, during the recession, I wanted to secure capital in case it was needed. It was harder to get capital as a minority-owned business. It was discouraging to see that I could not get capital from my banks even though I had revenues and good credit. My peers who were often white males were able to secure funding. Things have begun to change in this area over the last 5 years, as I am grateful for the funding supporting smaller businesses like mine during the most recent economic downturn due to the pandemic. Funding that is important as I have three companies Onyx Enterprise, Inc. (Civil Engineering and Construction), A/E Collaborative (Architecture and Engineering), and Buckles Holdings (Real Estate Developer).
One of the main keys to overcoming such challenges is to make sure you are THE BEST in what you do. You have to make sure you work extra hard to gain the experiences and qualifications necessary to deliver and compete within the field.
How have the challenges you have faced within you career, and most recently those brought on by the pandemic, impacted you, and what advice do you have for other women business professionals who may be struggling with the same?
The continuous and unpredictable changes have made me stronger knowing that I am resilient, and I can get through such times. The reasons my business is still doing well include some larger projects helping bridge the gaps and diversification of my work and business, so when one area is down, another may be thriving. Collaborating with other black-owned businesses, and organizations (NAMCE, NABWIC, DCEI, COMTO to name a few), has also been key as we support one another through not only the thriving but the tough times. Resiliency is key. From April 1st through the present, I have been awarded six major contracts which is unheard of. I attribute this to keeping my head down, focusing, and continuing to submit proposals with attention spent on what I could control. Onyx has been awarded MDOT projects (prime and sub-consultant), City of Detroit Engineering, and DPW roadway construction projects.
I would also advise women to make sure their finances, both business and personal, are intact, so you are able to weather the storms or downturns in the economy. When the pandemic hit, my company was strong financially, so we were able able to weather the stormy times and also receive grants and loans. I highly recommend women establish a Trust including both business and personal finances. Establish an Estate Plan. And lastly develop a Succession Plan for the business.
With all your endeavors, interests, and successes, how do you find balance in your life?
First, I believe balance is critical, especially as I just celebrated a milestone birthday. It is important to spend time with what brings you joy, and for me, this is family and friends. Also, overall health and well-being is important: getting proper rest, eating right, exercising, and taking care of your body are all essential. However, the most important balance is to be healthy from a mental and spiritual aspect. My Spirituality and relationship with God has kept me sane and centered.
What advice do you have for women considering entrepreneurialism?
Establish a personal and professional development plan. I tell my mentees to always have a professional development plan. If you are a business owner, it is critical to have a strong business and growth plan to focus on your goals and expectations. This is a plan you have to work and live by, not one that sits on the shelf.
To help me accomplish my goals, I have found it is helpful to enlist others to hold me accountable (Financial Advisor, Accountant, Attorney, Business Partners, Close friends, Family, and Church). I connect with many organizations, affiliates, and non-profit groups, even serving in leadership roles which has helped me tremendously. Again, the key message is to be engaged in the Community and expand your experiences and opportunities.
FOCUS is key. Stay focused on your plan and mission, and surround yourself with supporters to help you succeed.
As women, how can we best support one another during such unprecedented times?
Being open and honest, especially during this unprecedented time of racial injustice, economic injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is more critical now more than ever to continue to communicate and collaborate with others. We have to support one another. The impact of building our communities personally and professionally, can be profound. Get involved with your local city, professional groups, or coalitions, and help make positive changes.
If you could develop a hashtag about your career what would it be and why?
I have several, depending on what area of my life/career.
Currently, I am on the U of M Civil Engineering Alumni Board as Chair and a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. As I listen to the challenges the students are facing with racial injustice and COVID-19, it is inspiring to see how resilient and strong they are. With a list of demands, they are making their voices heard.
STEM is the foundation of our life. As we face such significant climate issues (water resources, flooding, etc.), all engineering fields are affected, especially civil engineering. It is a field that will have significant impact on our built environment and protecting our natural resources.
Certifications: DBE, SBE, Detroit (DBB, DHB, MBE, WBE), 8a, WOSB, EDWOSB, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, NEORSD Cleveland (SBE, WBE/MBE), Fulton County (MBE/ WBE), New York MBE/WBE
Awards: Best Small Business in Michigan, Crain’s Notable Women in STEM, Michigan 50 Companies to Watch, Michigan Chronicle Women of Excellence Award, NSBE-National Society of Black Engineers Golden Torch Entrepreneur of the Year, NAWIC-National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award