September 27, 2022

Women in Leadership: Championing the 1%

Our interview with Sherri Miles, President of Miles Roofing, Inc., highlights the parallels between the zoo & aquarium field & the construction industry regarding diversity & leadership advancement opportunities.

Sheri Miles

Anna Musun-Miller shares her interview with Sherri Miles, President, Miles Roofing, Inc. and Board Member, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

I had the pleasure to meet Sherri Miles during a dinner with Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center board members. As two women who have run our own businesses, we had a lot to talk about. I was particularly interested to hear what Sherri has done to advance other women within the construction industry, a field notorious for machismo. Sherri has leveraged her position as the fourth-generation president of Miles Roofing, Inc. to develop innovative business opportunities for other women owners of construction businesses and to champion the cultivation of diverse leaders across the industry. The zoo and aquarium field has remarkable parallels to the construction industry – especially when it comes to the history of gender and racial imbalance that continues to impact who are able to break through into leadership roles – so it’s useful to see how diversity has been advanced in construction, as well as the work that still needs to be done.

What’s it like to be a woman who owns a company in roofing and in the construction industry generally?

There are about 53,000 roofing companies in the United States. Less than 1% of those are owned by women. Many of the owners, like me, were born into it. I’m the fourth generation to own this company. In the 25+ years I’ve been in this industry, there have been great gains for women in all roles in the field. When I started my career, the only women in the industry were working in the offices of roofing companies.  More and more women have found their place in many non-traditional roles in the roofing industry in the past 10 years especially.

What kind of support system exists for women in your industry, especially women who want to lead?

I’ve found great support in affiliate groups. Early on, I joined the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and became very involved with Virginia Association of Roofing Professional (VARP) and the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA). These have been great organizations to talk to people who speak the same language and places to hone leadership skills. I’m now at a level where I can help change how our industry is thinking about bringing up the next generation of leadership. We are finally recruiting people who don’t look like those who had traditionally had leadership roles. We want to make sure we are reflecting the population at large, that all people feel included, that we break that first bias layer and intentionally invite people in so that they can be involved, and then help develop them as leaders. That first step can be so difficult for women or for people of color.

Thinking about that first step – creating a space that’s welcoming and inclusive – what have proven to be successful strategies in the spaces you’re in?

We have to invite diverse people to join in. It can be really hard for a new person to break in. If you’re in the “in group” and want to break down that barrier, you have to be the first to actually invite someone in. We need champions and allies within the group to decide that it’s important to include people who don’t look like the existing members, and then they have to actually ask them. Ask them to join a committee, welcome their insights, and once they’re in the room, make sure that their voice is heard. In the National Roofing Contractors Association, we have a diversity and inclusion committee where we discuss ways to get people involved. The Roofing Alliance (the foundation within the NRCA) put the seed money down for the National Women in Roofing organization in 2014 – the membership is around 2,500 now! It’s an affiliate group that’s outside of NRCA, intended to empower women in roofing. And the foundation that helped start that is mostly men. You have to have those allies on the inside step up and take action.  

Once you get women into the industry, are women able to advance? How have you been able to connect with and support other women owners?

My company is certified as a Small Women and Minority (SWaM) business in Virginia.  We also are certified Woman-owned by Women Business Enterprise Network Council (WBENC) and as a Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB). Fortune 500 companies look for the WBENC designation for companies to do business with. Women can also lift each other up because we find other women-owned companies through that designation. I’m also in Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), which is a great organization to find other women to work with.

Recently, some of the 1% female roofing company owners have banded together and started a joint women-owned company called Meta Team, LLC with a national client focus. It allows us to work within our existing service areas – among us we cover 22 states – and offer services to big corporations with sites all over the country. It’s great for us, because collectively we can take big national projects that none of us could do individually, and it’s great for the corporations because they have only one contract with one roofing company that’s completely women-owned. COVID-19 has taken some of the momentum out of it, but we’re on our way. We’ve worked to create relationships with each other and now the hard work is finding the procurement agents from these companies to get on their preferred bidders lists.

You’re on the board of the Virginia Aquarium, and I know that board service is very important to you. How can that kind of role be leveraged to advance diversity in the field as a whole?

Getting women on boards of directors is a tremendous opportunity for positive growth for women individually, but also a chance to make systemic changes. Developing that richness and diversity on boards ultimately benefits the companies and organizations they serve. It’s not just a nice thing to do – it’s a business advantage. Bringing that different perspective to a board helps companies change and not die. Think about it – if we don’t know how to sell to the next generation, how will we survive? Young people care about businesses’ relationships with non-profits, responsibility to their community, and impact on the environment – it’s not always about who is cheapest. It’s a different mindset, and if you don’t hear it from that audience, how will you know it’s key to your survival? It will affect your bottom line. That was the sell to my dad and his peer group. I said, “we’re going to directly show an ROI on changing the way we do things. We’re going to show there is a business case for this. This isn’t just a hippy-dippy thing. It’s going to change your bottom line. How you used to do things isn’t how you’re going to be effective going forward.”

That positioning seems like a really useful tool, especially for communicating the business value of diversity initiatives to board members that come from the corporate world. Do you have suggestions of other tools or resources that have been helpful to you in championing more diversity in your field?

A useful book that helped me frame the business case for diversity was Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage by Shirley Engelmeier. I also use tools like Textio to help me avoid unconscious bias in things like job postings – it highlights bias in the language that you use and suggests words you could use instead to be more inclusive.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a professional looking to take action to champion diversity in our field?

Ultimately, this is about individual relationships. You need people who are already in power, whether men or women, to be willing to stand beside you and say, “I’ve got you.” I feel so fortunate because I’ve had allies – men and women both – looking out for me, saying “you’ve got leadership potential, let’s put you through the paces and get you the experience you need.” I’m so thankful for that support. That’s an action that people can take. Be that person for the people coming up.

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