Sandra Wilkin: Opening Doors For Women In Construction

Sandra Wilkin was the first woman on the Board of Governors of the New York Building Foundation. Sandra Wilkin is founder, President and CEO of Bradford Construction Corporation, one of the leading female-owned construction firms in New York.

Since founding Bradford in 1989, Ms. Wilkin has become one of the region’s leading women in construction, earning the title of “a hard hat with style” from Crain’s New York Business. Forbes Magazine featured Ms. Wilkin in an issue dedicated to notable women business leaders.

As a co-founder and president emeritus of the Women Builders Council, Ms. Wilkin conceived the Council’s campaign “to break the concrete ceiling." She is the co-founder of The New Agenda, a broad-based coalition of longstanding leadership organizations in the Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises community.

Additionally, Ms. Wilkin serves on Governor Cuomo’s Minority-and-Women-Owned Business Enterprise Team, was appointed to Mayor Bloomberg’s Committee on Construction Workforce and Contracting Opportunity, and was the first woman on the Board of Governors of the New York Building Foundation. In 2013 she received the National Organization for Women’s Women of Power and Influence Award.

We spoke to Ms. Wilkin about her work to pass Local Law 1, the challenges she has faced working in a male-dominated environment, and the lessons she has learned along the way. 

TNW: You are currently President and CEO of Bradford Construction, one of New York's largest female-owned firms. Have you had to battle discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated industry? What strategies have you developed to overcome this?

SW: The simple answer is, of course, yes.

I’ve learned not to be intimidated by discrimination, and not to see being a woman as a weakness or a threat, but instead as an opportunity to show my strength and capabilities.

If you are in a meeting or negotiation and experience prejudice from someone, that person is very likely underestimating you.

TNW: Can you tell us about the Women Builders Council and the New Agenda? What was your inspiration and motivation for founding / co-founding these organizations?

SW: The Women Builders Council came as a result of women not receiving the opportunity to work on public projects.There was, at that time, little to no recognition of women in the construction industry, and I felt that if I was having this issue, there were probably many more women out there also struggling. The New Agenda was founded to highlight how important policies are for public organizations and to help support and grow minority and women-owned businesses.

TNW: What does a typical day at work look like for you?

SW: A typical day begins with phone calls early in the morning as I drive into work, and my first meeting, which usually takes place before 8am. Then I go to the office and round up any issues that need to be dealt with, review contracts, develop strategy and return phone calls. My “day,” which almost always continues into my night, often includes evening events and dinner meetings.

TNW: Which of your ventures is closest to your heart, and are you still involved in all of them? If so, how do you manage them all at the same time?

SW: I would have to say that the mentor program with the New York City School Construction Authority is closest to my heart. It is always difficult to start a new business, and this is particularly true in construction because of the capacity that you need financially, the risk you need to take and the experience of people you have to have around you.

When I see small firms and their myriad of challenges, knowing that statistically many will not succeed, it encourages me to help these brave entrepreneurs, and the mentor program is a wonderful way to do that.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout your career, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

SW: Honestly, all three are big challenges. I think that commitment to your business is extremely important, as well as making priorities and knowing what you need to focus on.

Accept the fact that as you’re growing a business; not everything you’re working on is going to come to fruition at the same time, so set your sights on things you feel you can be successful with.

TNW: You worked hand-in-hand with the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg to pass Local Law 1-2013. Can you tell us more about this?

SW: For minority and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) in construction, the opportunity has to be there, and the policies must be very real and thorough. Before 2013, it seemed like there was no door open for women-owned businesses in New York City. Policies were not very realistic, especially for women. Prior to Local Law 1, the city had zero goals for women contractors for public projects. Through a disparity study, the City Council and the Mayor Bloomberg administration realized that MWBEs weren’t getting their fair share of city contracts.

Trying to pass or change a law is a monumental task, but it was clear that this initiative needed to happen.

As a result of reviewing the legislation, there were subcommittee meetings, advisory meetings and reviews from both the administration and the Council as to how they could improve the situation, resulting in Local Law 1. Local Law 1 is one of the best laws in New York City, and I hope that MWBEs will continue to thrive.

TNW: How can a would-be entrepreneur find out whether their idea would make a viable business?

SW: Starting a business is much like buying a car. There are many parts that must be inspected individually to accurately determine if the whole will succeed, and this must all be evaluated before you leave the dealership.

To know whether you have a viable business, I am a strong proponent of creating business plans. It seems tedious at times, and there are people who feel that business plans are not as important as they used to be, but I believe they are essential.

Also, bounce your ideas off others—professionals, accountants, lawyers, other entrepreneurs, etc.—to see if they make sense.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes and/or failures?

SW: I find that I have learned more from my failures than successes; I think you always do. Perhaps that is because I seem to remember them more.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is to follow your gut and don’t let other people talk you into things that go against your instincts.

TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

SW: There are many issues that I think still need to be improved upon: equal pay for women; a time when there should not be a need for policies on a statewide level on women’s issues; and there should be more women in the executive suites and board rooms.

TNW: What is next for Sandra Wilkin?

SW: Who knows!

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

SW: I enjoy reading about other female entrepreneurs, and think it’s wonderful that there is such a strong community for us to raise questions and work together, to be each other’s cheerleaders. If you think you have a good idea, go with it! 

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