When Mikki Paradis graduated from N.C. State University 13 years ago, she didn’t know what kind of career to pursue. She started her own business, PDI Drywall, and figured out how to make a name for herself in a male-dominated industry. Now Paradis, 36, builds affordable housing in Raleigh and encourages other women through an organization called Chicks in Construction.
Q: What made you decide to launch your own drywall company in 2005?
A: I did an internship with a large drywall company for two summers when I was at N.C. State. When I graduated, I had the quintessential what-am-I-going-to-do-now question. When you’re 23, you can do anything, so it just seemed like a really good idea to start my own company. I love building things. I know it’s an unusual thing for women, but I was raised by a single mom so I didn’t really have gender norms. If something was broken, we fixed it. There wasn’t anyone else who was going to do it.
Q: How did you manage financially to get the business started?
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A: I didn’t have a mortgage, and I paid for my own college, so I didn’t have any debt. I self-funded. At the time I didn’t even know there was funding out there. That’s what I always talk to young entrepreneurs about today — there are Small Business Administration loans out there, money they want to loan you. I wish I had known that.
Q: Could you hang drywall at the time?
A: No. That was one reason I didn’t want to work with the company I’d worked with during my internship, because they didn’t feel it was a woman’s place. There were things they intentionally wouldn’t teach me. One of the owners said, “Women don’t need to know how to do that,” and I thought, “What year is it?” So I was really intentional with my subcontractors. I said, “I need you to teach me. Show me how you hang; show me how you finish,” so I could walk into these meetings and know what I was talking about. I knew what I was up against.
Q: What were some of the challenges?
A: It was so hard. I went into it right before the economy tanked. I had one large tract home builder, and they really stuck it to me. They owed me $40,000 and refused to pay it. It was a big deal and all the money I had. I had to sue them, and I had this moment of, “This is what the industry looks like; do I want to continue doing this?” I made some changes in how I did things. I took a step back from drywall and did some consulting work. I was young blood in this industry full of dinosaurs. I don’t mean that negatively, but there was a bunch of old men who didn’t know anything about technology and here I was fresh out of college using technology.
Q: How did you differentiate yourself?
A: My estimating software is something I built myself; it didn’t exist back then. I went to these larger companies and said, “I can help you integrate technology into your business.” It was like we understood that they were going to teach me about something I didn’t know, which was multi-family drywall, and I was going to teach them something they didn’t know — integrating technology into business. It was 2007 or 2008; they didn’t have email. They were printing out things and faxing. They were really at a disadvantage.
It wasn’t just the technology, the fact that I built an estimating software; I knew how to send email. These guys didn’t even have cellphones. That was part of what I offered them — let me bring you into the 21st century.
Q: Is it tough being a woman in the construction industry?
A: I have my days where I feel like I’m going to lose it. It’s not even that people are intentionally horrible; they just don’t know any better. They say and do things that just leave my jaw on the ground. I don’t think they’re trying to be sexist and demeaning, but it happens all the time.
Q: A few years ago you started Chicks in Construction. What’s the goal of the group?
A: It gave me access to the kind of relationships I needed. We meet every other month. It’s women from huge general contractors and supply people from all over the industry. We want to help women get into the industry and be comfortable, but we also want to help each other be successful. It’s so awesome. There are women who are competitors, but we all know that there’s enough room at the table for everybody. We can lift each other up, even in the same industry.
Tar Heel of the Week — Mikki Paradis
Born: April 25, 1982, in Atlantic City, N.J.
Company: PDI Drywall, www.pdidrywallinc.com
Education: Studied political science at N.C State.