02/03/2014 09:27 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Sandra Wilkin, President and CEO of Bradford Construction

Sandra Wilkin is the President and CEO of Bradford Construction, one of New York's largest female-owned firms in New York. After battling discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated industry, she founded the Women Builders Council and co-founded The New Agenda, a coalition of leadership organizations advocating for improved opportunities for Minority and Women-Owned Businesses. Through The New Agenda, Wilkin worked hand-in-hand with the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg to pass Local Law 1-2013, which expanded opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses regarding city contracting. Additionally, she serves on Governor Cuomo's Minority-and-Women-Owned Business Enterprise Team, Mayor Bloomberg's Committee on Construction Workforce and Contracting Opportunity, and was the first woman on the Board of Governors of the New York Building Foundation.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
About 10 or 15 years ago, I was advised to send a male colleague to a meeting in my place. The discussion was expected to become heated, and it was suggested that others in attendance would be hesitant to speak their minds for fear of offending my "sensitive ears" with their language because I was a woman. Being told that I couldn't go somewhere or couldn't be successful in a male-dominated industry inspired me to work toward breaking the glass ceiling--or concrete ceiling in my case--and to encourage other women to do the same so that this discrimination ends.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Bradford Construction?
Before I ventured into the construction industry I was a nurse. When I was younger women weren't always allowed the same opportunities they are today so women who worked were often nurses or teachers. As a nurse I learned about being innovative, taking initiatives, and being sensitive and conscious of others, especially during critical times in people's lives.
The medical facility I was working at was undergoing renovations, and being around the project and helping the workers piqued my interest and helped me realize that construction was the path for me.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is incredibly difficult. I am still trying to learn how to effectively balance the various aspects of my life. This is particularly hard in industries such as construction that have long hours and have work going on literally twenty-four hours each day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Bradford Construction?
The biggest highlight of my job is when I am able to witness a project from beginning to end. I gain an intense satisfaction when I see a building that began as a piece of paper become a completed work, knowing that I was a part of creating that and making it happen. Unfortunately women-owned businesses in the construction industry continue to be perceived as an exception, not the rule. Along with this come everyday challenges such as changing references to the contractor on a job from "he" to "he or she," encouraging women to enter engineering fields, increasing the number of women on boards of construction firms, and more.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in a male dominated industry like construction?
Come on in; don't be intimidated! Women are very much needed in these industries, and we should not be scared to venture into new territory. Do your research so that you can be knowledgeable and speak with authority, and do not second guess yourself.

How have you seen the women involved in the Women Builders Council and The New Agenda succeed in their careers?
These women are truly leading the way in the construction industry with new ideas and innovative projects, transforming their companies to become more accepting and successful.

How are you making a difference in New York politics through your responsibilities as a member of Governor Cuomo's Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise Team, the Committee on Construction Workforce and Contracting Opportunity, and the Board of Governors of the New York Building Foundation?
Through my work on these various teams and boards, I am able to represent women in my field and advocate for increased opportunities for MWBEs in New York on both the state and local levels. This past year I had the privilege of working with the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg on updating New York City Local Law 129, which outlined opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses regarding city contracts. The new law, Local Law 1-2013, was passed in January and vastly increases contracting prospects for minority and women contractors to have the goal and ability to work on larger government projects. Working with the governor on the Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise Team, we created the first goal of 20% of all state projects to be given to MWBEs, which we continue to aspire to.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue women face today in the workplace is the notion of Super Woman or Super Mom. The idea of being able to do everything on your own and be in multiple places at once is just not feasible, and women should not be held to these standards. Also, women should not feel intimidated or second guess themselves. The biggest pressure in the workplace is what they put on themselves. All women, including myself, need to be reminded sometimes that we have a lot to contribute.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I think Ms. Sandberg definitely knows about advancing women in the technology industry, and her movement to encourage women to lean in and be part of the conversation has always been my feeling and my thrust. I also think that it is important to recognize that we sometimes need assistance. Not everyone who has the ability also has the access they need to be successful, to be able to do what they want. Without programs to assist women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses, it can be very difficult, particularly in the construction industry, to get ahead. MWBE programs should be recognized as wonderful and helpful resources around the country to help minority and women-owned businesses get started and provide the assistance necessary to enable these women to "lean in."

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I am a strong believer that everyone should have the gift of a mentor or mentors. Not every mentor has more experience than you do, and sometimes they can even be younger than you, but they offer new perspectives that can sometimes alter your outlook on a situation. There is a group of wonderful women in my office who are my mentors on leading a successful work/life balance, showing me how they incorporate outside activities into their lives. They hold each other in such high regard as women in business, and I think this is really what mentorship is about.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire many female leaders, including famous faces such as Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as Jane Chmielinski, the Chief Operating Officer of AECOM, who has tried so hard to make a positive difference in our industry. Her ideas and instincts have truly transformed AECOM into an even better company than it was.

What are your hopes for the future of Bradford Construction?
My biggest hope for Bradford is that it is here long after I am gone. I hope that the people at Bradford keep moving ahead with our mission, giving women and minorities a chance to succeed in our industry until the fact that Bradford is a woman-owned business becomes a moot point because it is no longer an exception.