Design Flaws: How Black Female Designers Are Left Out of Commercial Contracts

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At the height of the Great Recession, Dennese Guadeloupe Rojas decided to diversify her Maryland-based interior design business, Interiors by Design, by seeking work in commercial real estate. She explored jobs in window treatments, involving the procurement and installation of window shades, because it seemed like a natural segue from work she had already done on residential projects, and the easiest way to enter the commercial sector. 

When she began drafting bids for projects, however, she said she began to experience bias and pushback from supply houses that provided what Rojas described as unfair pricing on window products or that outright closed her account. 

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In one instance, a vice president at MechoShade Systems, a manufacturer of window shades for businesses, shut down Rojas’ account after implying that Interiors by Design posed a threat to Mecho’s preferred dealers, Rojas said. 

“You know, your numbers are never going to be competitive,” the vice president allegedly told Rojas in one phone call, alluding to the fact that MechoShade was unwilling to give Rojas low, competitive numbers on its products (which it had the discretion to dole out). Soon after, MechoShade allegedly closed Rojas’ MechoShade account, blocking her completely from accessing the lower price points guaranteed only to firms that maintain vendor accounts with MechoShade. 

According to Rojas, Mecho has set up pricing so that Goodwin Brothers, a general contractor and third generation, family-owned company, and a few others get the majority of the work that’s in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area. Within this insular network, beneficiaries like Goodwin Brothers reward the supply houses that guarantee them low prices with material perks, such as private flights to football games. 

“[They’ve] done it in such a way that they get better price points. So you will never ever be able to compete against their projects,” said Rojas, who says she was once told by a job’s project manager that her bid was more than $200,000 off from the winning bid, in large part because of the lower discounts that MechoShade was offering the winning bidder.

In an even more unsubtle swipe, a sales manager for Draper, a shading systems supplier, allegedly told her, “You’re a disruption to the old boys’ club, Dennese,” before closing her account with them. Neither MechoShade nor Draper responded to requests for comment.

For some firms, submitting a bid is a major way to secure commercial work. The process is designed to be objective: A general contractor solicits bids from qualified professionals who have access to the products that are specified in a project. It then often picks the firm that has presented a bid with the most competitive budget. But the end result is not so democratic. At the end of the day, it’s the firms with the best connections with supply houses — that can offer the most competitive prices on their products — who win the job.

It’s a process that’s repeated across the commercial real estate space, whether it’s for window-dressing work, or interior design. On a surface level, it’s an opportunity for an up-and-coming interior designer to throw their name into the ring. In many other ways, it’s a system that can give the appearance of meritocracy, but that can actually work to reinforce existing privileges and relationships. 

Indeed, Rojas’ experience reflects a widely acknowledged status quo in which commercial real estate is an insular industry controlled by legacy relationships and deep pockets. For many Black women, who might not have access to either, there’s a third barrier at play: bias, sometimes intentional, and sometimes not. 

The notion of built-in bias is supported by the fact that commercial real estate is deeply dominated by white males. In 2017, the Bella Research Group and the Knight Foundation conducted research showing that white men held more than 75 percent of senior jobs in the U.S. commercial real estate industry. Another study published in Commercial Real Estate Report reiterated that white men held the majority of jobs in four of five categories tracked, including 77.6 percent of senior executive jobs. On the other hand, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black interior designers make up just 4.8 percent of all designers.

This presents Black women attempting to scale their business with a double-ringed bind: They must navigate a deeply white industry, while attracting clients who are also overwhelmingly white and male. It’s a system in which they face systemic hurdles that exclude them from essential networking and mentoring opportunities and, ultimately, from business. 

According to Sheryl McLean, the president and creative director of Bethesda, Md.-based design firm McLean and Tircuit, the practice of siphoning business by approaching vendors or fixing prices isn’t necessarily designed against women or women of color in her experience — but it is targeted against “anybody smaller than them.” And in this monolithic industry, that almost always means that Black women lose out on jobs, proving that intent hardly ever needs to be a prerequisite for discrimination.

“The industry is very relationship-built. Anybody that is outside of the immediate circle is basically being cut out,” McLean said. “I don’t play golf, I don’t run in their circles, and they don’t have a diverse group of friends. So I’m a foreigner.”

Whether there’s foul play involved or not, it hardly excuses the lack of opportunity-making, said Joyce Scott, the principal of Washington, D.C-based JL Interior Elements

“If this isn’t an intentional act on their part, why are they continuing to overlook people of color who have the same or better credentials as their white counterparts in this industry?” Scott said. 

Kia Weatherspoon, the founder of interior design firm Determined by Design in the District, whose focus is on affordable multifamily units that defy the aesthetic constraints of what such housing is supposed to look like, sees a Catch-22: To play a role in large projects, she needs experience in large projects. But she said that general contractors aren’t often willing to give her those first opportunities.

When one major hotel brand she did not want to identify by name was seeking out designers of color, Weatherspoon was invited to upload her work into a portal for consideration. Weatherspoon, who has extensive experience in commercial multifamily construction, knew her experience was commensurate for the potential project. Still, the hotel brand replied that since she didn’t have any hotel projects in her portfolio, she wouldn’t be a fit. 

“So how do I design a hotel if I’m not a preferred vendor and you won’t let me become a preferred vendor because I haven’t designed a hotel?” she said. 

For McLean, being a demographic outsider has invited a host of micro- and macro-aggressions. She misses essential meetings that subcontractors purposefully don’t invite her to, is blamed for mistakes that don’t fall under her purview, or simply isn’t sought out unless it’s to fill a quota for minority- and women-owned and emerging small businesses certifications, which many government-funded jobs often require. 

“That is, in most cases, the only way a male or female of color is going to get into those big jobs,” McLean said, adding that even in those cases, men are contacted before women. 

According to Tim Kenney, a spokesperson for the Washington State Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises, whose office is responsible for helping minority- and women-owned businesses access government contracting opportunities, the agency’s certifications combat an aggressive litany of systemic barriers. These include “insurance and bonding requirements, experience requirements [that present the kind of chicken-and-egg situation that Weatherspoon described], lengthy pay periods, the responsibility of accountability and shorter timeframes for work to be completed.”

Kenny said that offices like his can only do so much. A study that recorded more than 252 persons’ experience and difficulty securing Washington State projects, indicates that the individuals experienced the same barriers described by Rojas, McLean and Weatherspoon. (The study was not limited to commercial real estate projects, and represented primarily state projects of similar scope.) 

“We’re working as hard as we can to eliminate these barriers, but the barriers still exist,” Kenny said. “And the thing is, not all agencies operate in the same way. So there are going to be different levels of barriers, different levels of resistance, depending on where you’re trying to obtain a contract.” 

Because the jobs are commercial and large in scale, there’s a lot of cash at stake, ranging from jobs that’ll pay $100,000 to those paying millions of dollars. 

That’s a lot to go around — or a lot to keep — depending on whom you talk to. 

Sometimes, too, winning those large contracts triggers yet another hurdle that Black women interior designers must navigate in yet another moneyed, white institution with a history of discrimination: banks. Before designers are able to start a job, they must often initially finance it from their own pocket, meaning they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, and wait months before they see a return on it. That’s a tough ask for a business that doesn’t have the financial stability of a multigenerational firm, or is trying to land large jobs to build that financial foundation. McLean said she starts worrying “the day they sign the contract” because she knows how difficult the process of convincing banks to lend her upward of $750,000 has proven. 

“There’s no reason why a bank should insult me by telling me that they’re going to give me a $25,000 line of credit. What am I supposed to do with that, go to lunch?” she joked. “I’m trying to run these big jobs.”

And Rojas said that general contractors are often unwilling to go out of their way to bridge the gap. 

“A lot of general contractors frown upon you when you ask for a deposit for materials,” she said. “They don’t like it. They like dealing with people that can help fund what they’re doing.” 

That’s the case even for progressive-minded construction firms like California-based DPR, which, according to DPR supplier diversity lead Patrice Haley, aims to use a web-based third-party system to “identify even more certified diverse businesses across the U.S.” Still, Haley said that certain projects need subcontractors (a role that interior designers can sometimes take, as in the case with McLean) with specific project type knowledge and a “certain financial balance” that “makes them a great partner.” It’s a reasonable requirement, but one that reinforces a system that even white designers, without their social ties, would have trouble bypassing. 

Those ties do exist, though, and, for the white women who make up 72.7 percent of the design industry, these struggles are not mutually shared, because they always have “more buy-in” from general contractors, Weatherspoon said.

“White women get invited to many more rooms,” said Jessica Caldwell, the founder and creative director of a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multidisciplinary studio, FOLKE CREATIVE. 

Similarly, one way for Black women-owned businesses to scale and cut through the bias is to be personally vouched for and brought in by developers or general contractors who have the most authority on projects. It can be the difference between landing a job, and not. 

“The problem is that the general contractors continue to dance in this minutiae that it’s all price-driven,” said Rojas, referring to the vendor bidding process that general contractors manage. “And general contractors have more control over the situation than they realize.”

Many designers have experienced this vacuum of support since their aspirations took root. Caldwell related that in design school, one professor told her she “shouldn’t be in the program, and that she didn’t have any confidence that [Caldwell] was actually going to make it.” 

“I didn’t notice any of my other classmates being told those things,” Caldwell added. 

So, what’s there to lose, when general contractors or developers don’t make an effort to be inclusive? It goes back to the community, and to design standards, said Weatherspoon. A diversity of opinions and styles will always lead to a better design outcome for everyone, she said, notably for communities of people that might otherwise not be considered for such “luxuries.”

“You know why you don’t advocate for better? Because that’s not your community. You don’t see people who look like you in that community. You can’t have an empathetic approach that your loved one would be in there,” Weatherspoon said.

Over the last two years, the real estate industry has seen some movement toward equity.

Global real estate developer, owner and investor Tishman Speyer, for example, includes a supplier diversity and economic inclusion program that seeks to open doors for small and diverse suppliers, among its list of diversity initiatives. A Tishman Speyer spokesperson told CO that the “program formalizes the firm’s commitment to growth in spending, economic inclusion and related job creation for qualified small, minority- and women-owned suppliers.”

The problem with such measures is that there’s no one holding agencies or companies accountable for failing to meet their internal goals. As one business owner states in the State of Washington’s 2019 Disparity Study, “There’s no incentive or penalty for not meeting goals anyway. They’re just kind of like, to me, a political feel-good kind of process, that shows that we’re doing our minority thing.”

For many designers, lasting change can probably only occur through legislation and initiatives that are results-oriented and come with systems of checks that keep them so.

Rojas doesn’t want to wait any longer for the change to occur. She’s put in her time, and is ready for her seat at the table. She recalled a conversation she had with a MechoShade representative, who told her that MechoShade had opened an account for someone five years ago and that he was now starting to pick up momentum and do more jobs with MechoShade.

“I remember being on the other side of the phone thinking, ‘I don’t have five years,’” Rojas said. “I want to make this happen as soon as possible.”