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A 35-Year Journey of breaking barriers and building bridges

By: Barbara Smith, president and majority owner, Journey Steel

Let me take you on a journey, a journey that spans 35 years in an industry where I, Barb, a young black woman, dared to tread. It all started with a simple opportunity, an opportunity that would change the course of my life.

Picture this: I was a high school junior with an insatiable passion for math and science. The University of Cincinnati School of Engineering and the US EPA saw something in me—it was UC’s vision of recruiting talented minority students like me to pursue engineering upon graduation.

Growing up as the youngest of eight siblings, I was encouraged to venture far from home for college. So, I applied to a handful of schools, and fate led me to Eastern Michigan University (EMU). What caught my eye? EMU didn’t demand an application fee, and within a week, I held my acceptance letter.

At EMU, I stood at a crossroads, facing a choice between Plastics, Computer-Aided Design, Agricultural, or Industrial Technology with a Construction Specialty. The choice became clear when I discovered that the Construction program had just a handful of black students and even fewer females. It was as if the universe whispered, “You don’t belong here,” but that’s exactly why I knew it was my calling.

One summer, I found myself working with one of Michigan’s largest general contractors, taking on the National Bank of Detroit project in Troy. It was far from a walk in the park. I had to climb 26 stories on a headache ball just to check the steel’s alignment, a test that felt more like a challenge to prove my mettle as a field engineer. In a group of four co-op participants, I stood alone as the only black and female.

Work Experience for Others

After donning my graduation cap in 1988, my career kicked off at the largest Minority-owned general contractor (GC) in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, a harsh reality hit me square in the face—I was paid less than my male counterparts despite doing the same work. To overcome this bias, my supervisor suggested I go by “BJ” instead of Barb. In an industry where phone calls and letters were the norm, my deep voice often led people to assume I was male. This paradoxically allowed me to earn acceptance based on my knowledge and expertise before they met me in person.

Five years later, I joined another minority-owned GC with dreams of growth. However, when a promotion opportunity arose, I watched as a less-experienced white male, whom I had personally trained, stepped into the role. The reason given? They couldn’t present a young black female in front of potential clients.

My path then led me through various architectural and engineering firms. There, I continued to face unequal pay, the dismissal of my ideas, and being passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified male colleagues. It became painfully clear that, despite my two decades of experience, gender and race were formidable barriers.

Journey Steel Experience

The turning point came when I realized that if I wanted change, I had to be that change. In 2009, I joined hands with Tom Garten, a close friend I had met in the industry way back in 1988. Together, we founded Journey Steel, an endeavor to break down industry barriers.

But even as a minority and female-owned steel fabrication and erection company, the journey wasn’t a smooth one. Many in the industry still couldn’t envision someone like me at the table. Access to capital was, and still is, a challenge we grapple with.

Despite the hurdles, our commitment to changing the narrative remained steadfast. We initiated a non-profit program targeting inner-city high school juniors. Our goal was to train them as union ironworkers upon high school graduation, a path to opportunity for those who needed it most.

Our tagline evolved to “We Build and Support Dreams,” reflecting our vision to change the world one young person at a time. We consciously support other minority and women-owned businesses, and we’ve implemented a “pay it forward” program for our employees. It empowers them to give back by providing gift cards to those in need, sowing the seeds of lifting as we climb.

In closing, my journey has been a rollercoaster of personal triumphs and systemic challenges. But my story isn’t just mine—it’s a testament to resilience, determination and the unwavering commitment to change the world, one step at a time. Together, we can shatter barriers and build bridges toward a more inclusive and equitable future for all.

* REDI Cincinnati partnered with Journey Steel to support the company with a JobsOhio Inclusion Grant in 2020. The grant supports businesses with underrepresented ownership or are located in distressed zip codes. For more information on the inclusion grant, please visit our dedicated page or contact Cierra Clymer, REDI Cincinnati director of international business development & inclusion (cclymer@redicincinnati.com; 513.579.3103).

**This blog is part of REDI Cincinnati’s effort to empower minority-owned businesses by providing them with the knowledge and resources to effectively represent themselves through personal blogs. Our goal is to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the business world by helping minority entrepreneurs enhance their online presence.