Lisa White says she had been an employee in the commercial furniture industry for almost 30 years before she met “someone who looked like me” and was in charge.
That small encounter with another Black woman — one who owned her own furniture dealership — provided a big boost of inspiration, and two years later, White became the exuberant owner of a company that outfits workplaces with furniture and accessories. She installed hundreds of whiteboards in Microsoft’s new Atlantic Yards hub last year and is now bidding on contracts for other large corporations with projects in the Atlanta area.
“Having proved to myself and as a company that we can handle a contract of that caliber with Microsoft has helped solidify that we can do this with others as well,” White says. “It’s given me a humbleness and a confidence to seek out other mammoth companies. It’s surreal, quite frankly.”
Her experience is exactly what Microsoft’s Global Workplace Services team hoped for when it created a pilot program in Atlanta — now spreading around the globe — to give minority-owned suppliers training and networking opportunities to help them into the pipeline for bigger, more lucrative real estate development and building management projects. Small-business owners in commercial real estate and construction across the U.S. have hired more employees, won major contracts, been granted elusive funding and moved into new headquarters, bringing fresh ideas to an industry that’s slow to adopt change and favors bigger, more established companies with pricing advantages.
The real estate team’s efforts are contributing to economic development in communities with a Microsoft footprint by engaging and strengthening the supplier ecosystem — inspired by the Racial Equity Initiative, with a goal of more inclusivity both inside and outside the company. About a third of the suppliers working on Microsoft’s active construction projects in the U.S. now are minority-owned, including people with disabilities and diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and gender identities.
Atlanta businesswoman Meredith Leapley is a key partner.
Leapley’s construction firm came to the attention of Mike Lawings, the regional director for Microsoft’s Global Workplace Services, when she managed to spend more than half of her budget on 24 different minority-owned subcontractors for the interior buildout of two buildings for the Atlantic Yards project. At Leapley’s own company, which she founded 23 years ago with a focus on diversity and inclusion, more than 40% of the project managers are women — in a field where women only make up 9% of U.S. construction workers.
“When you have projects underway, you have the ability to influence,” Lawings says. He worked to get the word out that contractors in Atlanta should include minorities, “but the first thing you always hear is, ‘We don’t know any groups, we can’t find any minority suppliers that do this job.’”
So Lawings enlisted Leapley to develop a program called Crafting Futures Together, a six-month course for minority-owned suppliers in the construction and real estate industry — different trades including carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters and more — to show them everything involved in working with large corporations.
Microsoft doesn’t promise to award contracts to graduates of the program, but “now we have them in our Rolodex and can call them next time,” Lawings says. “And as the word gets out, it helps the participants so they grow and other general contractors can become aware of them.”
Cohort members learned from business professors, coaches and Microsoft executives how to navigate the complex corporate bidding processes, insurance requirements and financing options. White says she also strengthened her basic business acumen, getting insight into branding, how to hire an attorney and accountant, how to manage debt and what the best corporate structure was for her fledgling company.
The most valuable lessons, White and other graduates say, were on management skills.
After four years as a business owner, White learned she needed to delegate more to her team of three, allowing the designer on staff to engage directly with clients to select fabrics and finishes, for example. And the Enneagram personality tests cohort members took proved so helpful that White had her employees take them, too, to help her learn how to best communicate with and manage each one.
“I’m letting people do what I hired them to do, and now they feel more empowered to get their work done, they feel more invested in the company, and they have a greater performance and a greater attitude,” she says. “We’re all happier and we just go through our day getting things accomplished now, and that’s opened up additional doors for us as well.”
The Atlanta pilot was so enthusiastically received that Microsoft real estate executives decided to copy it at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where a major revamp is underway for the 500-acre campus, which includes 15 million square feet of office space with 134 buildings that support more than 50,000 employees.
Mari Borrero had pursued a lot of training opportunities in the six years since she and her husband decided “to impact the little corner of the world we’re in” as a “second-chance employer” for previously incarcerated workers and veterans. Borrero is a veteran, and her husband had been incarcerated, so with a keen awareness of the challenges faced, they founded a construction company in their single-car garage in a Seattle suburb and were growing nicely amid the region’s building boom.
Despite her success, she had yet to secure a line of credit. That’s one of the biggest barriers for minority small-business owners, and one that keeps many from expanding. Microsoft’s condensed, four-month version of the Atlanta program that she joined in Redmond gave her the tools and contacts to break through that ceiling.
“I get emotional because it’s been a journey,” Borrero says, tearing up. “As a minority-owned business you often have to kick doors down because people don’t understand the value we can bring. I just needed the opportunity. My company is going to a whole other level now.”
Borrero says she just signed her largest contract yet, a five-year project with the state of Washington. She also started a nonprofit training school for foster kids who have aged out of the system, to help address the high rate of juvenile detention in that population by steering them toward high-paying jobs in the construction industry.
While there are many Hispanic, Latinx, Black and African American people doing the labor, very few own the companies that have workers on the projects, Borrero says.
“If we want to see this holistic change, then we need the opportunity and the space to be successful in these projects,” she says, “and then that will trickle back down to our communities and our families.”
The other minority members of the Puget Sound cohort already have been able to help each other win contracts, proving the mantra that “your network is your net worth,” says Jimmy Matta Jr., who’s working toward a master’s degree in business leadership and management as a foreman for a construction firm in another Seattle suburb.
“We plan on becoming a general contractor in the future, so having these minority subcontractors that are really good and dependable will help us scale up as we grow and reach that goal,” Matta says. “When you have a more diverse team, you have access to a much bigger talent pool with different backgrounds and perspectives on the project.”
Word is getting out even in areas the cohorts haven’t reached yet.
Sal Riad started his own company 10 years ago, the next step after a career as an electrician. A general contractor working on a Microsoft project in Reston, Virginia, decided to take a chance on his small firm two years ago and gave him a minor contract to install lighting, outlets and electrical panels on one floor. That foot in the door was all it took, and now Riad is finishing up a much larger contract for which he fully managed all the electrical work over two floors, along with seven or eight other projects with the general contractor for other corporations.
“To have a minority contractor on site, it’s a big statement for Microsoft, that they care about everybody, all races, and are insisting on giving a chance to everybody, not just the big guy,” Riad says.
As executives expand the training program, they’re tailoring it to the needs of each Microsoft site — whether that’s a focus on construction, janitorial work, maintenance, landscaping or more — and figuring out what diversity means in each setting and country.
“Success to me is when we don’t have to say we want to have a certain percentage of minority-owned businesses working on a particular project, but it’s automatic, that we just know that we’re utilizing everyone who’s available,” Lawings says. “It goes back to the Microsoft mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. When we’re not excluding anyone, that’s success in my book.”
Top photo: Lisa White in Hapeville, Georgia (Photo by DV Photo Video)