Transforming manufacturing and construction — one girl at a time

Demi Knight Clark ’19 SOM
Demi Knight Clark ’19 SOM (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

When Demi Knight Clark decided to launch She Built This City, a social venture that aims to create pathways for women into manufacturing and construction careers, the cause was personal.

She’d been working for 20 years in executive leadership roles in construction and manufacturing firms — including some of the largest residential homebuilders in the world and a $2 billion materials-installation firm — surrounded by men. She fought through bias and mentored other women, but the numbers of women in operational roles in these companies remained about the same.

Today, women make up just a third of the manufacturing workforce and only 8% of the construction workforce overall, a percentage that has remained stubbornly constant. Over half of these women are in sales and office jobs. 

Although the numbers are dismal, Clark, a participant in the Global Executive Leadership Program at Yale School of Management (SOM), discovered that attitudes across the industry had radically changed since she’d started advocating for more senior roles for women in the early 2000s.

Companies now are desperately searching for this workforce, and the women are there,” Clark said, sitting at the first-floor café at SOM, where she is in the final months of her executive program. “We just need to connect the dots and shorten the gap between the wages and [career] stages.” In other words, women need both skills and opportunities to accelerate through these industries to leadership roles.

Her classmates and professors at SOM pushed her to put her ideas into action, she said. “This is an amazing place of incubation, innovation, and authentic support,” Clark explained. “The ethos of Yale SOM is, ‘So what? What will you do about it, rather than just batting around the idea?’”

Jobs in need of a workforce

Manufacturing and construction industry groups have launched numerous initiatives designed to attract women.  According to the National Association of Manufacturers, there’s a glut of half a million jobs needing to be filled today that will swell to 4.6 million by 2028. It includes traditional jobs in welding and electrical, but also new technologies: 3-D printing, computer-aided design, and electric-vehicle engineering.

It’s not just picking up a hammer,” Clark said. “It’s how to get involved in areas where the industry is going. These jobs are not going to be replaced by robots in the short term. However, there is an amazing potential for artificial intelligence and, more recently, augmented reality, to future-proof our industries, which is why we need to onboard younger women with interests in these areas. I didn’t see any companies or private entities addressing this challenge.”

Clark has designed her nonprofit to address this gap directly, focusing on three key constituents: women looking for career transitions, high school girls considering apprenticeships as an alternative or supplement to college, and 9- to 12-year-old girls interested in building and STEM. She Built This City has programs designed to meet the needs of each group, and new partners are emerging every day, Clark said. All programs will initially be based in her home city of Charlotte, North Carolina, including a Builder Girls afterschool program that teaches the construction trade and entrepreneurship, and allows middle school girls to pitch their endeavors and a program called Summer Bridge that provides three-month onboarding into a high school girl’s trade of choice, including an electric-vehicle program.

On Dec. 11, 6-8 p.m, Clark is hosting a special Holiday Girls Build free event for girls ages 6-12 at SOM.

Wherever Clark goes, her message is resonating. She Built This City was recently chosen as part of the 2020 cohort of SEED20, a social nonprofit incubator in Charlotte created by Social Venture Partners, and companies like Lowe’s and Tesla, as well as manufacturing schools, have all expressed interest in Clark’s venture. She also received her first $25,000 corporate donation from an impassioned classmate’s medical device firm in honor of women in STEM and manufacturing.

I never imagined the bonds and ‘tribe’ mentality I would encounter at both Yale and at SOM,” Clark said. “Everyone rallies when it’s an idea they believe in. I credit my current momentum to my mentors, classmates, and faculty members pushing me in the classroom.”

Her ultimate vision is big. She sees her nonprofit as a first step toward modernizing the manufacturing industry as a whole — to make it the next Silicon Valley.

We need to make manufacturing as enticing as tech startups,” Clark said. “Why can’t a woman, who may previously have been excited to seed fund a tech venture at Yale or beyond, be just as excited to create a plumbing startup? Or a welding firm? Or a large concrete company gaining commercial contracts?  Those are entrepreneurial ventures that harken back to the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and are how we can grow America. It’s a new backbone in steel, technology, and trades.”

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643