February 10, 2020 by 2019-2020 Equity & Diversity Task Force, 2019-2020 Sustainability & Resiliency Task Force, 2020-2021 Council of Global Representatives, 2020-2021 Learning & Teaching Culture Advisory Group, 2021-2022 Professional Development Advisory Group

Women who possess leadership roles are not an anomaly, and yet they are often underrepresented. Its 2020, but women – particularly women of color – still encounter barriers in their workplace that question their validity and credibility and hinder their journey in pursuit of their chosen career. Women of color as leaders generally confront an ineradicable double burden – that of discrimination and stereotype. Amongst the plethora of strong, female leaders of color that are actively challenging these stereotypes, is Ambrea Mikolajczyk, the owner of ARK Construction & Restoration in Toledo, OH. Ambrea leads a construction company – construction, a profession prevalent with male presence – alongside her husband, Kevin. Even though being in this profession, as a leader, brings forth its own challenges, she continues to channel these obstacles as an inspiration to advance her career and to pave way for other women who are hesitant to step into a leadership role. 

1.) What made you want to start your own construction company?

[My husband] Kevin and I love to restore old architecture, to breathe new life into structures that have been forgotten about in our community.  It was through this love that we developed our own construction company. We realized we had been performing construction management services – managing budgets, coordinating sub-contractors, maintaining scheduling, etc. – and had gained knowledge that could help others renovate/restore their buildings, homes or offices.   

2.) Did the field itself meet the expectations you had for it when you chose this career?

I didn’t realize how political this work would be.  There are 3 large companies doing construction in Toledo and everyone else partners with the large firms to complete projects.  It isn’t necessarily friendly to newcomers and relationships have already been established in the space. I have had to do a lot of networking, positioning, and community groundwork in order to get our name out there and be recognized as a quality construction company.

The company has continued to have more than 50% growth every single year since its inception.  This has completely surpassed any expectations I had for the business. We met with a new accountant last week and he literally said our company is a Golden Goose full of opportunity.

I am so proud of what my team and I have created, so for this I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to continue to build this thing from the ground up.  ARK will forever blow me away.

3.) Was it difficult establishing yourself in a predominantly male dominant industry? 

Yes!  It has been difficult.  Its a tough market to penetrate.  However, we have really established ourselves working with owners on their mid-sized projects or full home renovations.  The large companies don’t want small or medium sized jobs, so because of this we have found a niche despite being a minority-woman owned company.  I simply play in the sandbox they don’t want to play in.

4.) What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced being a woman in a leadership position?

People don’t believe me, can you imagine that?  A black woman who owns real estate and a construction company is actually unbelievable in 2020.  It’s challenging to always have to explain who I am and how I got here.  

5.) Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to establish your credibility for someone? What was the outcome?

I have to explain who I am, what I do, and how I got here all the time. People are generally confused that I am the owner, that I lead a team, that I have a real estate portfolio.  It’s truly annoying. Maybe if I was in a more progressive city the questions wouldn’t be as prevalent. It’s okay though, I know I have been placed in this role in my life on purpose.  I’m going through this so the next woman who starts a construction company or owns a real estate portfolio isn’t unbelievable.

6.) Can you tell me about some of the positive influences that being a minority female has had on your professional career?

I love the love I receive from other women of all colors; they encourage and support me to keep going!  My success is success for all of us and I feel them cheering me on every single day. Women stop me all the time and share how happy they are for me.  It helps me tremendously; it gives me fuel and courage to continue. I also get love from older male advocates. They say, “Ambrea, I want to help you. You are a young African-American female entrepreneur and we need more of you, how can I help you succeed?”

7.) Who’s been your role model and mentor through this journey?

Women – black women, young girls, and my children.  I go hard for them, trying to change stereotypes that we have all bought into.  Women are more than capable of forging their own path regardless of how unconventional the role may have been previously.

Thanks so much to Warda Zaidi and Ambrea Mikolajczyk for sharing their conversation with the AIAS, and for their commitment to making this profession a career to which anyone can contribute and belong.