Tanya Saldivar-Ali on building success in male-dominated fields

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Once I started the program, I absolutely fell in love. I didn’t realize the whole impact of planning out cities and the way cities are developed until after I started expanding my schooling and aligning it with my career. Developers are taking advantage of real estate opportunities, tax credits and making critical decisions that impact the everyday lives of long-time Detroit residents. It is crucial to understand how these developments have a long-term impact on the design-build ecosystem.

Why did you start a construction company?

My husband is an electrician by trade. When he got out of the military, he went through a military apprenticeship program, but he just couldn’t get hired. He waited for a long time to find union work and never got called either. He started working for a nonunion company in 2007, but they started laying people off, including him. We always talked about starting a business. We started buying investment properties in 2005, because I understood clearly that real estate was tied into long-term wealth. We purchased our first investment property in Detroit, which was a blighted two-family flat. I was seven months pregnant laying tiles on the floor. Ironically, we brought in a crew of drywallers and they wanted to purchase the house before we were finished. They couldn’t afford to buy the house flat-out and we owned the house cash. So, we did a land contract. The business grew from there. When the economy fell out, we started maintaining properties for foreclosures that banks and other investors owned. We got our builders license and started to do residential (construction) and later started prioritizing commercial work. Everything started unfolding from there. I absolutely fell in love with understanding construction through the lens of urban planning and placemaking. That’s where the business crossed between two visions.

My husband had a construction background and I had a passion for community development and urban planning. Detroit Development Fund (a provider of loans and technical assistance) has been a major partner for us in our growth and has backed some of our larger projects. We sublease space out of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and we still have a very close relationship with them.

What was your first large project that helped get the company off the ground?

Our first large project was in 2016. We did a lower-level renovation for a cafe and community space at Cristo Rey High School in Detroit. The project was over a half a million dollars. It was a direct opportunity from one of our mentors, Ideal Contracting, (a Detroit-based general contractor) who’s the largest minority contractor in the city. We completed everything from demolition, to (finding and hiring) trades, to waterproofing, to finding kitchen equipment, to mechanical, electrical and plumbing. It was crazy. That project was the first time we understood how important it was for us to pivot our business model. We were able to bring in our own crew, which meant we had the freedom to give other people (job) opportunities. We are most proud of using over 90 percent of Detroit-based contractors. That project shifted our mission and vision. We understood that construction was about the impact that the building or project has on the people. Prior to that project, those kids were eating lunch in their gym and didn’t have a cafeteria. No kid should have to go without a lunch room. We’re no longer just chasing the big project. We’re interested in working for a big construction firm for downtown (and) Midtown projects, but we’re also working with schools, churches, nonprofits and small business owners that have more of a rippling effect in terms of the people in the neighborhoods of Detroit.

What was an early challenge for you?

Being a female within the whole construction industry. Construction is predominantly a white, male-dominated industry. In the past, Luis and I have been in meetings and we’ve had people just completely speak to him and kind of ignore me being in the room. Luis will shift their attention and say, ‘Well, that would be Tanya’s (responsibility), you need to talk to her.’ Having his support in terms of where (my roles lie) has been key. So has finding the confidence to be assertive in my position.

Which project are you most proud of?

One of the projects I’m most proud of is First Latin American Baptist Church (formerly in Detroit’s Delray neighborhood), an 80-year congregation that has been rooted in the community for three generations. The church was demolished (in 2018) for the Gordie Howe International Bridge (to Canada). We helped the church negotiate with the Michigan Department of Transportation for (project) estimates and helped them relocate to their new location (in Mexicantown). We’re in the middle of a $600,000 expansion that includes expanding their current building and project managing the erection of a prefabricated building to help make them whole from what they lost.

You recently experienced a racist incident at that job site. What happened?

We had some out-of-state directors come in from Texas that specialize in the design of the prefabricated steel building. They were on-site working, and then left for lunch. When Luis and the field supervisor came back, they realized somebody stole the key from the forklift and dumped a bucket of water on the equipment almost as if to intentionally damage it. They busted out a window in a truck. They left a nasty note saying, ‘Rats, you’re not welcome here. Back to Texas for you amigo.’ My initial thought was that this is extremely discriminatory. There’s a predominantly Hispanic crew on-site right now. I also realized that it was an attack, because we’re a nonunion company. It was definitely a two-way message. It’s my understanding that rats is a derogatory term towards people that are nonunion. Obviously, somebody was extremely upset about that and didn’t feel we should be doing that project without union representation.

It’s upsetting because it’s a church in the center of a Hispanic community. It’s not this competitive, downtown project where public money is being used. This a church that’s using private funds. It’s just mind blowing. Meanwhile, people are just trying to put food on their table and the church is trying to make themselves whole from being displaced.

What’s your take-away from that experience?

It’s important to say that Detroit contractors and residents deserve a seat at the table. It’s also important for Detroiters to understand their worth in this process of the new revitalization. We need to include all local stakeholders in the process when it comes to development, and how that development impacts their daily lives. It’s extremely frustrating, and most contractors give up in the process. There’s literally too much work and not enough laborers. There’s definitely work for everybody. Change is here, whether you like it or not, and we have to adapt so that we don’t get left behind. But how do we find ways to be included in the process?

How has COVID-19 affected your business?

It’s been challenging. Things are definitely taking longer to get done. We can’t schedule trades on top of each other anymore for safety reasons in order to keep workers from different companies apart. Our materials are starting to be impacted by the logistics and the shortage of millwork. Lead times are longer to get materials. At the First Latin American Baptist Church, we had to put in an HVAC mechanical system order in over 30 days ago and it may be two months before we actually have the equipment. We’re also doing a project at the Michigan Welcome Center, where we’re building a cafe, gallery space and bathroom addition. We had to swap out all the wood doors we planned on ordering for hollow metal doors, because nobody could get them. (It’s a challenge) even working through (the city of Detroit) to get permits with a department that’s partially closed. Being transparent and having good communication and relationships with our clients, suppliers and the city has been key. Relationships are your future currency.

Do you have any advice for women who are hoping to break into the construction industry?

Women are natural builders and project managers. Women have been building communities for centuries. Oftentimes, we’re not talking to young people about how to be project managers, business owners, engineers, inspectors, or architects. It’s such a broad field in terms of all the things that impact urban planners.

Why aren’t young people talking and thinking about who’s designing their city? You don’t realize that you’re impacted. There’s plenty of opportunities for women to be part of the whole design-build system. If the “good ol’ boys” don’t want to let you play, then create your own game.