Donna Hager seeks opportunity wherever she can–for her firm, of course, but also for her people. Founded in 2015, Hager’s architecture and engineering firm, called Macan Deve, is certified as a Section 3 Business Concern. That means when she works for the New York City Housing Authority, she agrees to hire people who live in the housing projects to help her execute those contracts. Then she and her firm do their best to mentor them, so they can advance within the construction industry.
I’ve been an engineer my whole career. I worked for Aecom, the world’s largest construction company. I had really great mentors, I had a corner office, I was a VP.
Then in 2010, I noticed an increase in opportunities for minority- and women-owned business enterprises. The MWBE program had been around for a long time in New York, and it required state agencies to allocate a percentage of their contracts to minority- or women-owned firms. In 2014, the MWBE goal for state contracting shot up to 30 percent from 20 percent. That’s what made me think, holy cow, this is a great opportunity. Even my clients were telling me, “Donna, you should start a woman-owned company. There is so much work, and there are just not enough of these firms.” I established the firm on paper in 2012. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Aecom yet. But I had gone as high as I wanted to go there. They wanted me to do more travel and do more, and I wanted to be a better role model to my girls. I just had to try starting a company. I left Aecom officially in 2015.
I learned the hard way that it’s not that easy. I thought we’d be certified and get all this work. But big companies have to be very careful when they hire small ones. I personally had a track record, but until we were profitable, these companies wouldn’t take us seriously. We couldn’t hire people because we didn’t have the work, but we couldn’t get
the work because we didn’t have any people.
I ended up hiring more senior people who didn’t want to retire, and I hired them part time, as needed. These were the smartest people I knew in engineering and infrastructure. I got great quality and we got little jobs. Finally, people were believing in us, and then I could hire some full-time people, and they got mentored by the more senior ones.
In my field, the percentage of women is pretty low. In my company, we do have a lot of women–but that means that out of 23 people, we have seven women. I know a lot of women who had to pull back when they had kids. When I want to hire, I know how to find these women, and I know they’ll work hard because I can give them what they need. A lot of people don’t want to leave their big company to come work for a small woman-owned company.
I love that my company is so diverse. We hire people who were engineers in their home countries, but now they’re in the U.S. and they drive for Uber or they’re working at Macy’s. Sometimes they don’t speak English very well, but they’re amazing technically. My parents were immigrants. They had minimal education and barely spoke English, but they had purpose and all they needed was someone to believe in them and give them the chance to succeed.
One of our clients is the New York City Housing Authority. Because Nycha gets money from HUD, anyone that works on a Nycha project has to allocate a certain percentage to the residents themselves or to a firm that is a Section 3–like mine. Then we hire residents from these housing projects. I love it, because we mentor these employees. They learn how to read drawings and how to run construction projects. A lot of them really want a meaningful career. They want to get out of low-income housing, and they want to get into construction.
A lot of Section 3 companies have residents push brooms and clean trailers. We don’t
do that. We try to give them more responsibility, although it doesn’t always work out. We have them attend weekly meetings. They learn how to read drawings and how to run construction jobs.
We have a guy who started in construction administration. He did simple stuff. If the light bulbs were being replaced, he’d count them. Then we put him on different jobs, and now he’s more like an assistant to the manager. He has more interaction with the contractors. He’s understanding more of the work. He knows how far along the contractors are. He can say, “They poured the concrete pad today, and tomorrow they’ll get it inspected.” Section 3 is a big part of the business. When things go bad, that’s what makes me feel good about what I do.