Empowering Women And Girls In Trades – Demi Knight Clark, Founder at She Built This City & Spark Building Group
Demi Knight Clark – Yale SOM MBA Class of 2019
Tell us more about your company and what you do
Two companies! One is Spark Building Group, founded in 2022. It’s a certified Women Business Enterprise (WBE) construction & consulting firm operating in what I call the “deltas” – spaces where women+ are marginalized in manufacturing; our trade/labor challenges (and how with gender diversification “sold” to parents the right way & exposed to children in a groundbreaking STEM lens, as they are sciences); and “going first” by operating in welding & government general contracting. There are only 2% WBEs in construction overall, & I’m known for bringing light (and throwing sparks) in gender disparate spaces.
The other venture is founding She Built This City in 2019 – empowering women & girls in trades. The women – exposing them to jobs, training & apprenticeships w/vetted companies at no charge. The girls – getting power drills in their hands as early as possible (yes, mom & dad – it can be as young as 7 w/supervision!) I founded it due to my frustration of after 20+ years in field & executive roles, being either the “only woman in the room,” or one of very few. My career in construction has only see us move the needle by 5-6 percentage points, so at the rate we’re going, I won’t be on the earth (and who knows the state of manufacturing) by the time we hit 50%. It would take hundreds of years w/o pointed, collective intervention!
What inspired you to start a women-focused start-up, and how did you identify the specific needs or gaps in the market that your business addresses?
My grandmother was one of the Rosies during WWII & I grew up in a very equitable military household – women did everything (and more) that men did. Plus, my dad threw me into his workshop at an early age next to my Boy Scout older brother building Pinewood Derby cars. I didn’t experience gender disparity until guidance counselor interventions for college, then my first jobs in the field. How else could I honor the 500,000 women who left the home during WWII to provide for their families in trade & seemingly “dangerous” (but exciting & purpose-driven) roles than to go first?
At Spark Building Group, we’re hyper-focused on elevating the message of construction trades (& welding specifically) as science-centric STEM careers. We are spending over $100B in infrastructure & manufacturing in the next 5 years, & that won’t be slowing down due to volatility. Roads, bridges, structures are built despite interest rates, recessions & political changes. We need 500,000 welders by 2029 – & we’re not making the investment in two areas to solve for these deficits.
First, destigmatization & normalization to parents about the trades. Especially media. An entire generation (Millenials) on the whole were never taught trade skills as part of their regular curriculum due to the shift to STEM. Why did we separate the manufacturing from the technology industries, where did that delta begin? It happened when we focused on the color of the collar, which polarizes everything – “blue” vs. “white.” It can’t be either/or – welding is a science. Science is STEM. And I fully believe girls will be welding scientists who put us on Mars w/SpaceX & NASA. It’s already happening, but we aren’t focusing on the future of manufacturing – just the narrative that it’s “dead,” emoting visuals of these dirty factories empty & overgrown. Walk into a modern manufacturing facility today & you’ll find robots, cobots & more technological equipment supporting the hands-on work than in most technology startups. They also have more engineers & scientists on staff.
Second, accelerated pathways to trades. I’ll stick with welding – we are developing a 10-week Varsity Welding Lab, 10-day intensive and 3-day intro Rockstar Lab for different populations (immediate career entry vs. career transition exploration). In 2023, we’ve got to solve for “butts in seats” with companies struggling to complete these infrastructure projects on time and on budget. Trade jobs don’t need 4-year apprenticeship programs (that’s college!) They need accelerated pathways that give foundational skills while allowing what GenZ craves – on the job specialized, curated, boutique training and attention. We help the companies choosing these 10-week programs create a culture of hospitable work environments (for women+, to include childcare options) and also “start where they are” in their equity journey. We can’t solve it overnight, but we can do it aggressively once companies choose to focus on it.
How did your experience at Yale SOM help you with your venture?
Yale SOM taught me to get out of “my own pond.” I was part of a group of women we called “Yale Team Six” – six women in a cohort of 46. We had tremendous male allies & listeners in that room who will be friends for life – but it was important to band together. Not mentors, not sponsors – women+ “in the fire” at the same level as me. Hungry, changing their careers or lenses in their companies. I took that perspective and put it into my daily life – the power of not competing with other women in career stages much like my own – and exploding paradigms. Also, Yale was the ultimate norm creator. We knew the groundrules & the states of play at every juncture, so it created safe spaces for the c-suite executives who don’t fully understand safe spaces. When any marginalized communities (gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation) have the opportunity to truly be validated, acknowledged & seen; it opens such pathways for the discussions we need to be having in much, much bigger company venues. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it – so I brought that ethos back with me. I’m a storyteller now, and I can connect more with companies and influencers when I tell the impact through those stories at Yale.
What is your long-term vision for your business, and how do you see it evolving?
For Spark Building Group – I see us garnering larger welding/fabrication contracts in states & municipalities during this infrastructure boom; expanding the consulting practice to help larger companies in construction spaces or emerging technologies “win” their labor challenges through authentic work in the gender diversity space; and my passion – truly showing the trades for what they are – STEM careers that parents should be excited for their kids to choose (& high fiving when sometimes that doesn’t equal college) – and engineering pathways that aren’t separated from technology. It’s the only way we will rebuild American infrastructure.
I’m also expanding our work in normalizing the trades. I’m not one to swim upstream with the other salmon, & while I go to panels and conferences in-industry that talk about change, I find it’s a lot of talk (and remember that time block above – 5-6% change in 20+ years). We’ve got to give it some rock star energy, and I see that elevating into a larger pond of influence. Why can’t we get a welding torch in Miley Cyrus’ hands to create a stage? Virtual cobot battle with Kendrick Lamar? I see it in spurts – such as GTAW (TIG) welding in The Mandalorian season 3; and Nick Offerman’s character in the Last of Us GMAW (MIG) welding in a dystopian America. We’ve got to show that using your hands is also using your brain – and pays six-figure plus, debt-free salaries. But they have to see it first.
What advice do you have for other women who are interested in starting a women-focused business, and what resources or support do you recommend they seek out?
Phew, I’ll stay away from being an advice monster (as my teenagers call it) at 46. I’ll just say, in my own life, I’ve stopped auditioning. I don’t need more certifications, degrees or “legitimizers” that take more time from me working ON the business. Women have to be 180% qualified in our own minds before we start a company or a big venture or go for the job – why < 3% of venture capital funds were awarded to women-owned businesses in 2022. Just go. Fail forward. We can’t have progress if we don’t fail, and trust me, I’ve been that woman for decades who has to be cleaner, faster, stronger, better to succeed on the jobsite.
This era, I go with calculated risk. I don’t have to know the outcomes, but I have a hunch & I do the feasibility study. Basically, having Big Male Energy but being a woman! We’ve got to talk about it, embrace it & curate it in women. I call it “moving from fearless to unf*ckwithable.” Ask any woman entrepreneur – many times we get the, “you’re so fearless, that’s not me.” Actually, we’re terrified every day – how to pay to bills, capitalize, scale, taxes, all the things. But successful ones have realized setting boundaries on things/people they don’t have time or energy for is what will grow their business. So that’s the unf*ckwithable – not being Charlize Theron in Mad Max, but being her energy! If men or others see that as too aggressive, that’s not your problem to solve for.Jump off the cliff – as Issa Rae said in her acceptance speech during a Women in Film event, “Entrepreneur til I die. I deserve this, bye.”
In terms of support – seek out those women who are doing “it.” Whatever “it” is for you – & reach out! We’re in an era of extreme accessibility, and I’ve yet to meet a woman who truly has gatekeepers when it comes to helping other women. They could be CEOs, heads of state, celebrities, any woman – you’d be surprised how little they ARE reached out to saying, “I’ve got all the grit & desire to succeed, & you’re doing it. Can you help share your story so I can learn?” I’ve never been turned away, & I just had to put on the big girl pants to ask. The worst you can hear is no, and the ones who have told me no, I can count on one hand (and eventually circled around to me anyway, because it was more of a bandwidth challenge). Another set of resources is in your state. Women’s Business Centers & the Minority Business Development Agency from the Federal Government are amazing organizations I utilized – and they were critical when I didn’t have spare capital/needed to get fastest from points A to Z in the startup process. Ask everyone all the things – if you don’t you’ll probably pay for it (either monetarily or in time value of money).