Demi Knight Clark is sparking change in the construction industry.
At a recent gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina, 22 girls ages 9 to 12 were asked a question: “How many of you have worked with power tools?” Only one raised her hand. But the numbers would soon change.
Over the next two days, the girls took part in the first-ever Farm to Construction Code camp, learning how to create computer code to animate the plant cycle, how to build a planter box, and, yes, how to wield a power screwdriver.
“It’s so awesome to see these girls, less than 5 feet tall, stepping up to a power driver and drilling that first screw,” said Demi Knight Clark, founder of She Built This City, which facilitated the camp. “They go from being absolutely terrified to ‘give me another one.’ I call it the lightbulb moment.”
Generating those moments and sparking interest in construction is central to the mission of the Charlotte-based nonprofit, which Clark launched in December 2019. It offers education and networking opportunities designed to help girls and women enter construction and manufacturing.
As an executive in these industries for more than 20 years — as well as an Ironman triathlete and mountain climber — Clark has often been ‘the only woman in the room’ (or on the summit). She grew up in a military family without much emphasis on gender and found herself drawn to male-dominated spaces and activities.
“I saw it as a challenge,” she said. “I liked being where there wasn’t representation — it’s something to build, and I always looked for a legacy to build.”
While Clark has helped women make the jump into management roles throughout her career, she wanted to do more.
“I always thought my legacy was sitting in the seat so that other women could see it. I was able to affect maybe 10 to 15 women a year, to put them in leadership positions, and that just wasn’t good enough for me. Last year I said, I’m 43 years old, what is my true impact here for the industry? That impact needed to multiply.”
“It’s so awesome to see these girls, less than 5 feet tall, stepping up to a power driver and drilling that first screw. They go from being absolutely terrified to ‘give me another one.’ I call it the lightbulb moment.”
It took participating in the Yale Global Executive Leadership Program for her to realize her next step. “The whole ethos there is ‘so what, now what?’” said Clark. The “what,” for her, turned out to be launching She Built This City.
The venture consists of three pillars: one designed to interest girls in construction and STEM, one to support high school seniors considering a trade apprenticeship, and one to help post-college and professional women explore trade jobs and training.
The first pillar, for girls ages 9 to 12 and 14 to 17, features Explore Trades workshops, camps, and after-school programs exploring maker spaces such as construction, automotive and engineering. Upcoming camps include one focused on drones and another in which girls will build duck boxes for a Charlotte conservation company. This summer, girls at Builder Girls camp will build a “she shed,” learning how to tackle each stage of construction along the way.
“Right now, two out of every 1,000 girls by the age of 16 is introduced to a power tool,” said Clark. “If we can’t introduce them to that, why would we expect them to choose these careers?”
Each camp features a technology component, giving the girls a foundation for the industry environment they would enter in 2028 and beyond. To enable girls from a range of socio-economic backgrounds to participate, the camps are no cost or low cost.
For graduating high school senior girls, She Built This City will offer a three-month program that onboards them into the trade of their choice. For post-college and career-transitioning women, sponsored offerings include Women@Work Trade Expo, Women@Work Trade Circle, and advanced Women@Work Academy courses in plumbing, general contracting, welding, drone inspections for construction & 3D printing for homebuilding.
As Clark explains, addressing all three groups is essential to impacting the industry in both the short and long term.
“If we were just to focus on women 18 plus, we can impact hiring statistics, but that doesn’t tackle de-stigmatization of the trades and introducing the foundational concepts to the younger girls,” she said. “Our mission is to solve the labor shortage over 20 years by closing the gender equity gap in construction. That takes different things at different age groups.”
It’s a considerable goal, but one that Clark, a mother of two teen girls who approaches each day with the mindset of “not wasting a breath,” hopes to make her legacy. She plans to expand the nonprofit to five more cities in the next three years, introducing its programs to as many girls and women as possible.
As for the organization’s name? Inspired by the ’80s rock song “We Built This City,” Clark chose it not just for its play on words, but for how it made her feel as a kid.
“It was about dreaming big.”
Courtney Tait is a writer specializing in women-led ventures and social issues. She is based in Sacramento, California.