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A female CEO who’s paving the way for others in a male-dominated industry

November 21, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
There’s been a boom in female entrepreneurship in cities around the country, but when it comes to construction, there remains a lag. For Nellie Torres, a woman of color, it was doubly challenging to enter the industry. After years of not taking no for an answer, Torres is now the CEO of New York-based ProjectSpan, known for some of the city’s most sought-after projects. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The number of female-owned businesses in New York City is growing at four times the rate of male-owned businesses, becoming a key part of the city’s expanding economy.

And many of these companies are beginning to stand out for work being done in fields that have historically been dominated by men.

Hari Sreenivasan tells the story of how one female entrepreneur has built success in an unlikely place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s just not many women on construction sites?

NELLIE TORRES, CEO, ProjectSpan: There’s not too many women, though you will find more now than you would have when I first started.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nellie Torres was just 17 when she got her first job in construction as an accounting intern.

Today, more than 20 years later, she’s the CEO of ProjectSpan, a Brooklyn-based construction company that she started in 2003.

NELLIE TORRES: When do you think the lights will be ready to be installed?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Torres is known for her work on some of the city’s most sought-after projects, West Manhattan’s new subway station, New York’s first in 25 years, the electrical work for Yankee Stadium’s center field, and her current job, lighting the massive Kosciuszko Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens.

It couldn’t have been easy getting here.

NELLIE TORRES: It wasn’t easy getting here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The most difficult part for Torres? Breaking into construction’s old boys club, and overcoming stereotypes that women like her don’t belong.

As a woman of color, did you feel like you had to do twice as much work, be twice as good just to be kind of considered equally?

NELLIE TORRES: Absolutely. I had — in my view, I had to be better. I had to be earlier. I had to be on point. My numbers had to be perfect, maybe not perfect all the time, but most of the time, definitely more than my male counterparts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It was a different bar.

NELLIE TORRES: It was a much higher bar.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Torres grew up in a rough section of East New York, the sixth of seven children of Puerto Rican immigrants. She put herself through college and earned a master’s degree by working days, studying nights all while raising a son.

NELLIE TORRES: East New York has made me what I am. And I spent a long time trying to pretend that I wasn’t from there and pretend that my childhood wasn’t in the ghetto growing up.

And, eventually, I have noticed that, no, that that made me exactly who I am. It’s made me have the ability to knock on walls and break down walls. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have been where I’m at.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Where Torres is at is starting to become more common.

Nationally, according to the latest census data, there are nearly 10 million women-owned businesses, an increase of more than 25 percent since 2007. And a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future found women started more than 60 percent of all new businesses in New York City between 2002 and 2012, according to Jonathan Bowles, who authored the report.

JONATHAN BOWLES, Executive Director, Center for an Urban Future: Well, we actually did an analysis for the 25 largest cities. And there has been major growth across the board.

The number of women entrepreneurs are growing, not just in New York, but in all major cities in the U.S.

HARI SREENIVASAN: However, construction remains an industry that lags behind. Only 15 percent of all private construction firms in New York City are owned by women.

JONATHAN BOWLES: There’s a lack of role models. That’s really changed, but, a lot of times, women didn’t see people in their families or in their friendship networks that had started businesses. Fortunately, that really is changing. But getting access to those role models and mentors is a big deal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Torres, who oversees a team of 17 full-time employees, is trying to set an example for female staffers on how to best climb the ladder in an industry that has not been very open.

NELLIE TORRES: You have to be very, very, very tough, have very tough skin, and not be willing to take no for an answer. You will hear no a lot. You will hear you can’t a lot. You will hear, you don’t belong here.

And you just need to recognize that, yes, you do belong here. You need to get educated, you need to get experience, and you need to forge ahead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even now, despite being the boss for years, her employees see discrimination outside.

Willie Grullon is ProjectSpan’s safety manager.

WILLIE GRULLON, Safety Manager, ProjectSpan: When we go to job sites, and sometimes she shows up. And electricians and construction workers, when they first see her and she starts asking questions, they assume she’s a project manager.

And when they come over, you guys got a new project manager? And I’m like, no, she’s the owner of the company. And I get a kick of their expression, the surprise they get.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Successful women in construction may still be a rare sight, but Torres is participating in a New York City program to mentor minority and female-owned businesses, and pave the way for similar entrepreneurs.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

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