Turning No into a Yes of Endless Opportunities

By Akilah W. Darden, President, The Darden Group, LLC

Hearing no wasn’t something new for me, but how I responded to that feedback changed my life and career, creating a catalyst for change and possibilities. “Don’t listen to those who say YOU CAN’T. Listen to the voice inside yourself that says, I CAN.” – Shirley Chisholm

Growing up, I heard, “No, you are too smart for an HBCU.” However, receiving a letter of recommendation to go to a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) propelled me into one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I decided to attend an HBCU, the prestigious North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (now the largest HBCU in the country), because they touted being young, gifted, and Black as the “standard.” They challenged me to attend the university, and they offered something more than the standard. Throughout my four years at A&T, I heard “Aggies Do” and “…this is a place where dreamers become achievers”. And those words set me on a path to achieve greatness. 

Building upon that foundation led to another no. “No, not construction.” After graduating from A&T, I received an offer to work at an architectural firm. But I quickly decided to pivot and pursue a career in construction which took me three months to get a job offer. I worked with a residential contractor to build everything from townhomes to tank farms at an international airport. From there, I transitioned to building large, high-rise buildings, schools, a one billion-dollar hospital in Virginia, and even worked on projects for the Department of Defense. These projects were complex with tight budgets, numerous constraints, and fast-paced schedules. With almost $2 billion in managed projects, there were a lot of adversities and lessons learned.  

Akilah Darden, MBA LEED AP

The glass ceiling for women in construction is apparent adversity. When you know this, you find ways to fill your cup in alternative ways. Saying “no, to the glass ceiling and yes, to leadership, I focused on mentoring and mutually beneficial opportunities for growth. After mentoring most of my professional career, I took a leadership opportunity in Indianapolis. It was time to show my expertise and passion on another level.

Fast forward to 2019, the City of Indianapolis issued their disparity study. The disparity study, through research, found minority- and women-owned businesses are substantially underutilized in the city’s procurement and contracting processes. The study shows that only 14 percent of contracts were with minority-owned businesses—and that was not a surprise to me. As I read the disparity study, I wrote down all of the barriers to entry and why diverse businesses are not being used on public and private jobs.

For months, I thought about how I could play a part in right-sizing the disparity of opportunities to diverse vendors in construction. In 2020, I started the Darden Group, LLC. A construction management and training firm specializing in large, complex, commercial projects. Our mission is to get to the decision-making table and create opportunities for diverse vendors. Our business is about intentional conversations with equitable outcomes. Our mission is to solve the problems facing the construction industry and diverse businesses by providing access to opportunities and creating tools for subcontractors to be more efficient and effective on projects they receive. Since 2000, I’ve been able to bring on diverse vendors to projects I’ve managed, and with the right tools, they have been successful.

I heard the comments and feedback, and there was much work to do. In 2020, we put all the barriers together and created a Construction Management Masterclass. This e-course provides templates, tools, and an interactive workbook for professionals to gain skills in project management, communication, cost management, scheduling, and time management. The most critical factor of this masterclass is to show individuals/owners how to move from receipts to payment applications. This process shows businesses where their cash flow is every 30-days. There is more to the course, but this portion helps business manage their cost versus budgets to create net profits. Hopefully, this tool will help the barrier of access to capital and decrease the frequency of the need.

Every industry needs labor but especially the architecture and construction industries. The construction industry is vastly changing. Instead of just talking about the opportunities and providing tools to be more efficient, we were able to show construction professionals in real-time through The Darden Group, LLC Instagram page. This method helps “meet people where they are” and show the intentionality to diversity on the far east side.

In 2020, Cook Medical hired The Darden Group, LLC to help them reach 100 percent diverse participation on their manufacturing project while having the project built by the diverse community. They took a chance on this minority- and woman-owned business. We achieved this with the help of Harmon Construction. It was the perfect opportunity to showcase how the industry can right-size the disparity among diverse vendors in construction. Yes, a 100 percent diverse participation goal is achievable by helping others succeed and excelling in the opportunity. I’ve also been humbled along the way to have been honored as one of the 2021 IBJ Women of Influence and now, nominated for two MIRA awards: Rising Entrepreneur and Community Impact!

Because of the success of the manufacturing facility, I now have the opportunity with Indiana University Health Design and Construction as their Director of Diversity and Inclusion. My role is to work with some amazing people to create equitable and intentional opportunities for diverse construction vendors and create pathways to increase a diverse construction workforce. It will take a community to help us meet and exceed our diversity goals. To go from $16 million in diverse spending to over $600 million state-wide in diversity spending is truly an honor and the continuation of the moment. It is not the mountain top experience that is important, it is the journey to get there. I encourage you to learn more about IU Health as we create the next historical movement in achieving our design and construction diversity goals.

Black History Month SeriesIndianapolis is rich in Black history, and that history teaches us about our past and develops a better understanding of the world. Today, this month, and all year long, we appreciate the contributions and perspectives of African Americans. Every week during #BlackHistoryMonth we’ll celebrate the successes of local African Americans impacting the quality of life and growth in our city.

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