Wendy Sullivan at a job site on the University of Minnesota campus
Wendy Sullivan at a job site on the University of Minnesota campus

At a young age, Wendy Sullivan was 
interested in construction. She 
eventually opened a residential property 
and development company and transitioned, 15 
years later, into commercial construction. She 
became an entrepreneur because it “seemed to 
me to be closely aligned with determining your 
own destiny, financially or otherwise.”
There has been one obstacle, however: 
How do you get in the door for large contract 
work when the buyers are comfortable with 
long-standing relationships? 

The State of Minnesota began to wonder 
the same thing. How many businesses 
owned by women get state contracts? It was 
one of the questions the governor’s office 
tracked in 2015. Since then, government 
spending on women-owned businesses — 
though still small — has grown 85 percent 
from 2015 to 2017. 

In dollar terms, from July 2014 to 2015, 
the state spent $14.3 million — less than 
one percent — on women- and minority-
owned businesses, from construction to 
food service. That number increased to 
$75 million by the end of 2017. Although 
still not a substantial percentage, it is an 

Alice Roberts-Davis is head of the state's 
Office of Equity in Procurement, created to 
“ensure greater equity in state contracting 
and construction.” This effort is important, 
she says, because diverse “people who own 
businesses tend to hire people who are most 
like them.” Thus the share of the pie of state 
money will go toward employing a more 
representative group of residents.

To illustrate the disadvantages women 
and minority-owned business owners face, 
the office sent puzzle boxes to procurement 
professionals across the state. These boxes 
can be opened a certain way. Some received 
all of the information to open the box, and 
additional “funds” to “hire” consultants. 
Others did not — and were not able to open 
the box.

It was mandatory training for 800 
purchasing professionals. The experiment 
gave them a practical understanding of the 
frustration of certain businesses to get a foot 
in the door. “It really did drive home the 
point that everyone is working at different 
levels,” Roberts-Davis says. “That we have 
to do all we can to accommodate those 
different levels [of entry] and give everyone 
an opportunity.” 

Sullivan founded WENRICH Property 
& Development, a property management 
company, in 2006. A few years later she 
read that Minnesota’s Department of 
Transportation was struggling to find 
women and minority contractors for 
projects. She attended National Association 
of Minority Contractors (NAMC) meetings, 
where other contractors advised her to find 
a niche. 

"I had ambitions to install guardrails on 
the highway," Sullivan says. "Others were 
honest about the monopoly, potential 
resistance, and limited resources a newbie 
would have entering that scope of the 
industry. A former construction labor 
relations professional, Martha Henrickson, 
suggested chain link fencing."

"I am forever grateful for that suggestion," 
says Sullivan. "Along the way I have had 
support from many fabulous people — a 
lot of them woman and minorities who 
understand the journey. A strong network 
has been key for our sustaining existence 
and growth. I am not afraid to reach out and 
admit I don’t know."

WENRICH received two large fencing 
projects through the state initiative, and 
Sullivan hopes for more in the coming year. 
The contracts are for fencing and fence 
post removal and repairs, gate installation, 
vegetation removal, and traffic control.

Sullivan says that the state 
government’s focus on hiring 
women- and minority-led 
businesses "starts a conversation. 
Some general contractors would 
[not] look our way if there were 
not mandates.” 

She believes the contracts “set the standard, 
or give permission for private contractors to 
implement this into their culture.” Sullivan 
says this is a “door-opener,” not a “given” to 
be awarded contracts. “The business must 
be earned and the performance as a credible 
contractor must be there as well.”

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