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Heels & Hardhats becomes force in state construction industry
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Jackie and Cyndi Richter, a same-sex couple, founded Heels & Hardhats in 2010 to fulfill their dream of having equality for women and LGBT people in the construction trades.

Two years later, Jackie became the first transgender person in Illinois to receive both a Female Business Enterprise certification and a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise certification.

Jackie explained that the certifications gave her hope for their company's future and other minority-owned businesses in Illinois. She noted the certifications were not easy to get because people did not understand the socio-economic hardships transgender people face. Jackie said their goal was expanding the definition of gender to include transgender people and noted their victory was due to the guidance they received from Stevie Conlon, Rick Garcia and Rocco Clapps.

"We decided to strike out on our own when it became impossible for me to get a job in this industry as a trans woman," said Jackie. "In the fall of 2012, we got our first government contract building a parking lot for the Illinois National Guard ... Every job was a learning experience as we slowly climbed the ladder. In the spring, we were hired by Christy Webber Landscapes to perform traffic control for her crews on the Kennedy for the City of Chicago Gateway Green Project. Little did we know how that job would open a door for us months later."

The company has also done restoration work fixing what contractors tore up during utilities replacement for the City of Rockford, NPL Construction Company, Nicor Gas, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Aldridge, M.J. Electric, LLC and Intren, LLC on projects for Com Ed. They have 50 employees who perform various tasks and an additional 18 employees who do traffic control work as flaggers.

Jackie said the email she sent in 2013 to Joshua Adams, NPL's director of operations, was the turning point for Heels & Hardhats.

"I will never forget going into that conference room the next morning and discussing our work ethics and beliefs," said Jackie. "I told them, 'I know I am different and people look at us with doubt. We have chased government contractors and all we got were closed doors and laughter.' He looked at me and said, 'Jackie, NPL has better core values than to not give you a chance.'"

Jackie noted that NPL has also helped them with fundraising for Howard Brown Health and the Lesbian Community Care Project ( LCCP ), introduced them to other contractors, mentored them and trained their staff.

Cyndi added, "Our relationship with NPL's crews flourished through our flagging work. As the work season came to a close, Joshua mentioned to Jackie and I that we needed to focus our time in the office. I remember looking at Jackie thinking how is that going to work because it was just the two of us at the time. Spring came and so did the work and by mid-summer we had 16 employees. Jackie and I were quite busy in the office. As we closed out that year, I reflected on the statement Joshua made. A company so large had given us an opportunity not only to grow our business, but to work in the field with their employees and live the dream. We were a team, and we were accepted for who we were."

After their first job with NPL, Adams called and invited Jackie to a Nicor diversity event in Cicero. They did not have enough gas to get there so Jackie took the batteries out of the trucks they owned and sold them for gas.

Nicor's diversity event is where Jackie met Intren founder and Chairwoman Loretta Rosenmayer and where NPL introduced them to Nicor's senior buyer. Two years later, Nicor did a press release on Heels & Hardhats and that led to Nicor's parent company, Southern Companies, inviting the couple to speak on diversity issues in a talk which was telecast to the corporation's divisions from their Atlanta headquarters.

"We slowly grew and worked our way up the ladder to become a contractor of choice for many of these firms," said Jackie. "Heels & Hardhats learned early on that paying it forward paid off. We would continue to grow with the core values we learned from our clients. All of these companies are not just customers, they are our allies in changing perception of LGBT people. These firms have really embraced us and our employees."

Recently, they got their first semi tanker truck of gas and diesel fuel.

"When I saw the truck pull into our company's yard, it literally took my breath away," said Jackie. " I took a picture of it and went to the office to hug Cyndi. She asked what was wrong as my eyes were all teary eyed. We looked back to that important tank of gas we bought four years prior. We have taken our dreams so far that we use that much gas in that many trucks to support our clients."

"Heels & Hardhats' growth is a direct result of a combined commitment with NPL to share ideas, opportunities and transparency," said Adams. "While advocating for women, minorities and the LGBTQ community, Jackie and Cyndi have put advocacy into action by hiring, training and mentoring employees and subcontractors similar to NPL's diversity program. Through their hard work, commitment and perseverance, Heels & Hardhats has helped NPL, our customers and other firms in the industry who are seeking an opportunity to succeed."

"First and foremost, Heels & Hardhats provides a competitive, high quality service to their clients," said Rosenmayer. "They earned the respect of our project managers and are trusted to get the job done right. Jackie and Cyndi also have values and principles, which are so important in business. In today's business climate, you must have suppliers and partners that you can trust."

Jackie and Cyndi's message centers around not giving up on one's dreams.

"We have weathered many storms throughout our life," said Jackie. "It is kind of like our business—safety in knowing you have each other, quality is living life on life's terms and learning that faith overcomes hardships and finally, commitment no matter how bad things get. I cannot imagine doing this without Cyndi."

"We have been through many struggles and hurdles, and through persistence we were able to achieve our ultimate dream: to have a successful business within the LGBT community," said Cyndi. "There were many points when it would have been much easier to give up; however, we were too stubborn and hardheaded to do it. Through the hardships that we have faced, we have gained an all new appreciation for the success that we have been blessed to have."

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