BRATTLEBORO—The U.S. Small Business Administration has named Helm Construction the 2018 Vermont Woman-Owned Business of the Year.
Helm, owned by Mel Baiser and Kate Stephenson, is a construction management and consulting company specializing in high-performance, energy-efficient, and low-carbon buildings. Helm has offices in Brattleboro and Montpelier, and over 50 clients across the country.
The SBA lauded Helm for their achievements in employment growth, financial success, expansion, and community development, according to a news release.
“As a small but growing business, it is a huge honor to be named Woman-Owned Business of the Year,” said Stephenson, who noted, “We are also working hard to help bring more gender equity into the construction trades, which have traditionally had very low representation from women, transgender, and gender nonconforming people."
By winning an award specifically for women, Baiser hopes to shine some light on the lack of equity for business owners outside of the gender-binary.
Baiser uses “they/them” pronouns and is genderqueer — a person who eschews conventional gender assignment and identifies as neither male nor female, or both, or some combination of the two.
“I’m going to use this as an opportunity on how this might be exclusive,” said Baiser, who pointed out there is no category in the SBA awards for transgender, gender nonconforming, or genderqueer business owners.
Baiser noted, “we are in a field that’s predominantly cis-male,” — people assigned male at birth who claim a male gender. In Helm’s business practices, “we are bringing up issues of racial and gender equality in this cis-male culture."
“When I was working in the field [as a construction laborer], I had a lot of great allies, but I experienced homophobia and patriarchy dynamics,” Baiser said. “To be successful women and gender nonconforming in the trades, you have to be tough and confident, and unfortunately, you have to do things twice as good as the dudes next to you.”
One of the ways Baiser said Helm is trying “to change the construction industry, one company at a time,” is through their support and training, including written materials such as the Gender Toolkit for Construction Business Owners, which Helm developed.
“We know a lot of builders who tend to be progressive, they want to ‘do the right thing,’ [and] bring more women and trans folks into the trades, but just didn’t know how to take the first step, or how to find those types of candidates,” Stephenson said.
The toolkit offers tips on everything from promoting inclusive company culture and retaining hires to making protective equipment available for smaller-sized bodies.
This toolkit, noted Baiser, is just one of the ways Baiser and Stephenson combined their knowledge of the construction trades with their experience in academia and the justice movement to build Helm and support their clients and their clients’ workers.
“We’re a triple-bottom-line business,” said Baiser. “We give equal weight to people, the planet, and profit. Social and environmental justice is a big part of our work.”
A Vermont native, Baiser moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend school and worked for many years as a paid community organizer for social justice.
After a weekend gig helping a friend with a demolition project, “I thought, ‘Man, this is so satisfying,’” Baiser said. “I was getting burned out as an activist and I needed a change. At the end of the day, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be a carpenter.’”
Baiser applied to the local carpenters’ union, but there was a two-year wait. So Baiser hit the streets and found a company that looked appealing.
“I talked my way into a job as an apprentice carpenter. I had no skills. I started on the bottom,” Baiser said.
Along the way, Baiser became less drawn to the physical nature of the job — “I had to work out at the gym every day just to keep up” — and was more interested in the process and organization of a construction project. Baiser soon earned a certificate degree in construction management and learned things like estimating costs, construction law, and accounting.
Time for a change
After moving back to Vermont to get married to Rebecca Baiser, have a child, and be closer to family, Mel Baiser began working for a few years with local construction companies before needing a change yet again.
“I got fed up with dysfunctional workplace environments,” Baiser said. “I was working hard to improve the systems, but I had no power as an employee to implement changes. I’m a type-A person. I like to create order in situations.”
To fulfill that need, Baiser started Baiser Construction Management in 2012. The firm worked with construction companies, general contractors, and owners’ representatives on project management and work-systems consulting.
Stephenson, former executive director of Yestermorrow, the design/build school in Waitsfield, studied anthropology and environmental science as an undergraduate, and earned a master’s in management from Antioch University New England in Keene.
“We met a few years back at the Efficiency Vermont Better Buildings by Design conference[...]. When I decided to leave Yestermorrow [...], I wanted to reach out to a list of people doing interesting work and Mel was on that list,” Stephenson said. “After talking to Mel a few times it became clear that we had really complementary skill sets and a common goal to help builders and designers be more efficient and sustainable.”
They joined forces as Helm in 2016.
Their combined experience in and around the building trades, blended with their experience in organizing, marketing, administration, and management, makes for a good business partnership, Baiser said.
“We can offer more expertise. We’re different, Kate and I, but complementary."
As an owner’s representative in Vermont, Stephenson has become well-versed in the permitting process, especially those related to Act 250.
“Every project is different and it can be a real challenge to fully anticipate what roadblocks are likely to emerge,” said Stephenson, who noted she can help her “clients identify potential challenges and be ready to respond to them."
Stephenson said some of her favorite tasks are working with nonprofit and community-based clients “who are working through the intricate dance of fundraising, grant writing, permitting, design, and construction.”
“Too often I see examples of where an organization has a big vision for a new building and hires an architect, spends a ton of money on architectural design, then engages a capital campaign consultant and realizes that there is no way they can raise enough money to build their dream project, and has to go back to the drawing board and re-design, wasting time and money in the process,” said Stephenson.
By helping them define their goals, needs, budget, timeline, and decision-making protocol from the beginning, “we can help to bring together an integrated team to work through the design and construction process,” Stephenson said.
One of the aspects of Helm Baiser loves most is, “we get to be part of high-performance buildings, which are energy-efficient, healthier, have better indoor air quality, and are made of better materials."
Baiser also takes pride in having “a tangible impact on the businesses we work with, and some of our clients have been with us since I started Baiser Construction Management. They’re sustainable, profitable, they have increased revenues, and they offer employee benefits. We’re helping the owners have a work-life balance.”
This cultural change required some work to get business owners to change their minds, said Baiser.
“Many of them are not into it at first. They’re tradespeople, and I’ve helped them increase their skills, or got them to hire support staff” so they don’t have to wear the many hats typically required of a business owner, Baiser said.
Helm’s work promoting justice-based employment practices got the company noticed by Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan and his staff.
“[We] brainstorm ideas on how to get the word out to business owners about the new paid-sick-leave requirements,” said Stephenson.
Stephenson maintains a blog on the Helm website, www.buildhelm.com/news.
A recent post details Vermont workers’ comp laws, and begins with, “Most contractors I know seem to recoil in fear or get very angry when anyone mentions the two words, ‘workers’ comp.’”
Soon, said Stephenson, she will write a post about how companies can change their policies to comply with the paid-sick-leave regulations.
Baiser and Stephenson hired a full-time project manager, Erin Rennoldson, about six months ago, and she helps clients with “finish things,” said Baiser, such as windows, moldings, and other interior design elements.
Helm hopes to add more staff to the team soon. “There’s a huge need for what we do, and we’re at capacity,” said Baiser, who noted the partners want to grow the company, “but still maintain quality.”