Bless Your Heart, Honey, I AM the Boss
More than half of American working-age women are in the workforce. Our presence is felt not only in so-called pink-collar jobs (which are some of the fastest growing in the country, by the way), but increasingly in male-dominated fields. Yes, there is still a long way to go to achieve employment equality, but even in the Deep South, where boys’ clubs rule and social change is slow, women are shaking off the gender bias and getting down to business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these successful entrepreneurs had to create their own opportunities as business owners instead of waiting to be offered access to the upper echelons of their professions.
We talked to seven of these role models in the South, from a bounty hunter to the founders of a woman-friendly auto service shop. In fact, we heard so many inspiring stories that we decided to release the interviews in two parts (read part 2 here). Here are the first conversations with women making strides today that will help girls land their dream jobs tomorrow.
The Demolition Expert
When Simone Bruni lost her home after Hurricane Katrina, like so many of her New Orleans neighbors, she got busy rebuilding.
Clearing away the debris and starting fresh was overwhelming, but despite an absence of construction experience, Bruni felt drawn to continue the work on a larger scale to help her city get back on its feet. Today, she is the president of Demo Diva Demolition, which offers demolition, hauling, and salvage services to the Crescent City.
In the beginning, “I was really targeting women,” said Bruni. She got unabashedly girly: pink business cards, a pink dumpster, and before long an entire demolition fleet of pink machinery. “I needed to make a bold statement,” she said. And with her pink fleet in an almost exclusively male industry, that’s exactly what Bruni did.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, industries with the highest concentration of men are mostly construction-related, including cement masons, crane and tower operators, and roofers. Some of those men weren’t pleased to see Demo Diva arrive on the scene. The reactions Bruni received ranged from condescending to downright rude. When she introduced her company to one CEO he responded, “Funny name, kid. I'm sure you’ll do well.”
Others were more blunt. “The first day I put the magnets on my car I was driving down the interstate and one guy pulled alongside me, honked, and shot the bird,” she said. Thankfully, Bruni said her trucks have also elicited positive reactions. “I have parents that stop [with their kids] and look at my truck and yell, ‘You go, girl!’ For me it's almost as if [my truck] says: Look boys, girls can do anything,” she said.
But she also admitted that working alongside men can sometimes pose challenges. Her latest? Making contacts. “I don't hunt, fish, golf, go to the strip clubs, or whatever it is that men do to network,” said Bruni.
As a business owner, she’s determined that these minor hurdles aren’t permanent setbacks, and she encourages women to pursue their dreams. “I don’t use the term, ‘it’s a man’s world anymore,’” she said. “The possibilities are endless.”
The Bounty Hunter
She’s an international skiptracer, bounty hunter, and private investigator all rolled into one.
Michelle Gomez, the owner of Texas-based Unlimited Recoveries, is every fugitive’s worst nightmare.
Standing 4 foot 11 inches tall and weighing 106 pounds, she doesn't seem like too much of a threat, but don’t let her size fool you—once hired, Gomez is relentless.
“It’s all about the hunt,” said Gomez from her headquarters in Lockhart, Texas. “My subjects don’t even know I am coming for them,” she said, describing how she tracks and helps apprehend fugitives. “It’s a rush. The blood is pumping, and you can’t even blink.”
Gomez’s one-woman operation is often seen as a last resort for those searching for someone who just can't be found. When law enforcement officials were stuck in a rut with a suspect who had successfully evaded the FBI, she was brought in to help. When banks or private lenders are seeking to recover an asset, she’s not too far behind. Dealing with a lost family member or wary of wrangling with kidnappers? She’s the one to call.
“I get calls for a lot of cartel cases and fugitives on the run,” she said.
Her current line of work is far from anything the young Gomez imagined herself doing. “I was raised conservative,” she explained. “I had no idea about this world. My dad used to say: You don't lie. You don't cheat. You don't wear tank tops, and you don't wear skirts above the knee.”
Gomez’s entry into a tough-as-nails profession was actually a lucky break during a rough time in her personal life.
“I was dealing with a boyfriend at the time who put me through hell and back. I was a victim of domestic abuse and while the charges were being addressed, I was also trying to deal with the court, addressing the issues in front of me, and avoiding him.” Gomez said.
She’d taken some time off from her job as a legal assistant for a large personal injury firm to get through that challenging time when the skiptracer opportunity came about. “My friend who was working as a repossession agent asked me if I wanted to work as a skiptracer. I didn’t even know what that was at the time. It sounded illegal,” Gomez said.
It may not be illegal, but some of the tactics do bump up against her personal beliefs.
One of her first cases involved locating and taking back a van for a lender, but there was a hitch: The mark’s father had just died.
To get the van’s exact location, Gomez shrewdly called the daughter’s home and asked, "Where do I need to deliver the flowers?”
After getting the funeral home’s address, her colleagues wanted to pounce immediately. Sympathetic to the woman’s plight, Gomez urged them to wait. For the love of God, she pleaded, her father had just died.
“God ain't got nothing to do with this repossession,” the repo man retorted.
Still, she held them off till right after the ceremony. “It would have been awful at the viewing,” said Gomez.
She was the lone woman on that job, which is typical for her line of work. “It’s all men,” said Gomez. “It doesn’t make me feel any different.”
That sentiment doesn’t always cut both ways, though. Of her colleagues in law enforcement, Gomez said, “They have a lot of pride and they often don’t want to reach out to a woman skiptracer, but we’re supposed to be there for each other.”
Despite its macho image, Gomez said women naturally have qualities that make them well-suited for bounty hunting. “We have intuition that a man doesn't have. You won’t find your subject with muscles and an ego,” she said.
With steely confidence she added, “I just do it better.”
Amanda McNally, owner and principal of North Palm Beach’s M Architecture Studios, a full-service commercial and residential design firm, is focused on success. Usually, she barely notices when gender becomes an issue.
“It’s not something I really play into,” she said.
Sometimes, though, sexism is impossible to ignore. “When I was first started out looking for a summer job, an architect told me that I should get a job at a construction site ... but as a woman I would only really get the job cleaning up after the construction is done,” McNally said.
Despite increasing numbers, female architects like McNally are still largely outnumbered by men. According to the American Institute of Architects, in 2011 only 17 percent of its members who were firm principals and partners were women. The Department of Labor reported that in 2014, just over a quarter of architects were women.
It’s no wonder some people haven’t gotten the memo.
“I think there is some surprise that as a woman I am a full architect and not just a designer,” said McNally. In this male-dominated field, it’s still common for clients and colleagues to assume women on the job site are designers or decorators, roles that require much less training. In a survey by the American Institute of Architects on gender equality, two-thirds of female respondents felt workplace equality wasn’t up to snuff.
If she’s on a project and senses some unease or hostility among the male engineers, project managers, and designers she must work with, McNally uses it as an opportunity to forge new partnerships.
“The few occasions that I have walked into what I could tell was a group of men that are good friends and that good ol’ boy network was in full force, it didn’t take long for me to become friends with [them] and for us to have mutual respect for each other.”
It’s not always a matter of moxie and charm, though. Like many working moms, McNally felt being a parent made it harder for her to advance in a traditional office.
Asked whether this was a factor in starting her own firm, McNally replied, “Absolutely.” According to that American Institute of Architects diversity study, 70 percent of female respondents attributed women leaving the field to the long hours typically required. Almost 85 percent said that promoting an office culture that prioritized work-life balance would retain more women. “I was not willing to sacrifice my family time to prove my worth,” said McNally. “Now I'm able to juggle the time with my children with my profession.”
In addition to a more agreeable schedule, her firm offers another benefit, one that most mothers—particularly those with full-time jobs—would kill for: sleep. “As an architect, we are used to having sleep-deprived studios,” said McNally, referring to the intense training young architects go through. “Your work suffers. Your family life suffers. I keep [my project load] small intentionally because that is what works for me.”
She also gets to call the shots in terms of clients and partners, including those not-so-friendly good ol’ boys. “If someone wants to limit you because of your gender, then that is someone you don’t want to work with,” she said. “Ignore it. There are absolutely no limitations.”
Want to stay in the know? Subscribe to our newsletter for a weekly roundup of stories you don't want to miss.