Sellen Construction is a Seattle-based construction firm. The largest commercial construction firm in the Pacific Northwest, their clients have included Microsoft, Amazon, AT&T, Russell Investments, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Vulcan Inc.
As Director of Subcontractor Diversity & Development at Sellen Construction, Angela Battle works to uphold the company’s commitment to fair hiring practices and ensure opportunities are available to a diverse group of subcontractors. We recently sat down with Angela to discuss her unique career path and how diversity and inclusion initiatives are changing the construction industry for the better.
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I started working for a commercial real estate development company while I was in college, and I ended up staying there for more than a decade. Over time, I made my way from the front desk into their project and property management teams. Then, I worked in the business diversity program for the University of Washington, serving as the director for the entire three-campus university as well as the medical centers.
Just over a year ago, I saw that Sellen Construction had an opening for a Director of Subcontractor Diversity, and it was so perfect for me: I had 11 years of commercial real estate experience and eight years of supplier and subcontractor diversity work. I knew this was my job, so I went for it.
By committing a full-time resource (me!) to this work, Sellen Construction is proactively engaging and supporting the diverse subcontractor community in a field that has traditionally struggled in that area. A diverse business is owned by someone from an underrepresented minority — including women, veterans, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community — or operates in a Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone). That also includes any small business co-owned by these designations with a member from a majority group.
The intent of having this program is to build a culture at Sellen Construction in which subcontractor diversity is a clear priority and is supported through training, policy, and inclusion plans. Not only is it simply a better hiring practice; according to Capterra, studies show that adding diversity allows for more innovation and better ideas, leading to more sound business decisions.
Because it’s such a new program, a lot of my work so far has been foundational. First, I solidified the vision of what subcontractor diversity means here at Sellen Construction. I went through our current list in BuildingConnected and flagged diverse subcontractors so we could start accurately reporting on our hiring initiatives. I attended 12 different outreach events and visited about 40 different subcontractors to discuss their capabilities, gaps, and what they need to do to get on Sellen Construction’s jobsites.
I also participated in unconscious bias training that we rolled out to managers and superintendents. This year, we’re asking all employees to take it. Attending the training sessions helped me get a feel for our team’s current level of knowledge and awareness, and the general level of interest people had for diversity and inclusion.
I find a lot of people in this industry are nervous about taking on risk without data to support those decisions. Utilizing new suppliers or subcontractors feels risky to them, and because of the historical makeup of this field, businesses owned by underrepresented groups often don’t have the decades-old relationships with general contractors that other businesses do.
One of the biggest barriers to this line of work is getting people to open their minds. There are incredible businesses out there that can bring new ideas to the table and introduce innovative ways of doing things — you just have to give them a voice.
There’s one example I remember so well. My team was meeting with a large mechanical and electrical plumbing company in the area, and there were about 35 people total. We walked into the meeting, and I realized I was the only woman in the room. It’s tough being in those situations because you’re seen less as a contributor and more of a representative of a group.
It happens all the time at different scales, but at the end of the day, it’s all about promoting awareness that representation and diversity really do matter. People in this industry often don’t think about these issues, but when it’s brought to their attention, they say, “Wait a minute. We really should do something about this.” More often than not, leaders understand that bringing new voices to the table helps ensure the business is continually moving forward.
I will say, I have encountered a few “salty dogs” along the way — those who are more resistant to change. But honestly, it’s the women out in the field that are really struggling: the apprentices, the laborers, the carpenters. I’m seeing more and more women interested in this line of work, but it’s tough out there for them, and they aren’t getting as many projects because they often don’t have the same established relationships as other business owners. But that’s a huge part of why I do what I do: to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to grow and work in our field.
I’d tell them to find mentors. Choose mentors of both genders who can be allies to you as you grow your career in construction, and align your path with women who have been in your shoes before and understand what it takes to forge a path forward. The more people you have in your corner, the easier it will be to succeed.