Carolyn Stradley has overcome some unbelievably debilitating hardships. She was orphaned in a North Georgia shack at the age of 11, homeless in Atlanta at 13, married at 15, pregnant at 17, and widowed at 26.
In the midst of this mayhem and heartbreak, Stradley also chased after an unlikely dream. First, she landed a job at a local paving company. Then, she got her GED, put herself through college at night — giving her dying husband dialysis two nights a week and cleaning the company offices on the weekends for extra money. At the age of TK she decided to start her own paving business. Her incredible ascent through an industry traditionally inhospitable to women has brought Stradley enormous success. In 1996 her company won the contract to pave the running track for the Atlanta Olympic Games. She holds a seat on the National Women’s Business Council and has been recognized by Ernst and Young and Avon Products for her excellence as a business entrepreneur.
You operated your whole life in a “man’s” world. How did you do that?
It was a different game, and I was very comfortable in that game. Of course, I took a lot of grief for it. A lot of times I was ?laughed at continuously. I was made to sit outside as a child because I was dirty at school and I smelled so bad they made me sit on the school steps. When I entered high school, I did so without front teeth because of battering, abuse and neglect. So I was accustomed to being laughed at.
The things I was not accustomed to on the job site were the constant belittling and verbal attacks of, “What are you doing out here? Why are you trying to take my job?” I was locked in Porta-potties. My car was vandalized, and I was threatened repeatedly. So I became very proficient at using a .38. And I carried one on job sites. But I also cut my hair as short as I could, and I wore men’s clothing, loose fitting shirts and slacks and boots, so that I didn’t draw attention to myself.
I didn’t instigate conflicts or fights. I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to avoid it if I could, and yet get where I wanted to go.
So in order to survive you had to assimilate and become as much like a man in that world as you could?
In what ways weren’t you able to do that?
I couldn’t do it in the fact that my physical strength was not equal to that of a man. I could pick up100 pounds and carry it around?and I knew the equipment better than a lot of men. But if it got to a straight physical strength, then I couldn’t. But most of the time, thank God, I was smart enough to figure out a way of doing it so I didn’t have to have that brute strength?So those were my benefits. And of course, my only desire in my life was to be a mama, a wife, have a home, because I never had one as a child. I never had these things. So sometimes that hurt. And of course, I had no personal life either — though I was only 26, my husband died. I never really dated that much because very few men wanted to date a woman that shoveled asphalt for a living.
How do you think young women would fare today doing the same kinds of things? What obstacles would remain? What would be harder? What would be easier?
It’s a different type of discrimination. I’ve been told today?by white men, very powerful men?”The majority of decisions are made in the men’s room.” So that’s the way I think that it happens in our lives today. No longer can a man in a meeting pinch me on the tail. They don’t have to worry about the physical attacks any more. They don’t have to worry about vandalism on their vehicles any more. But they get a different type of discrimination. Today, you’ve still got a total discrimination in wages. A woman only makes, what, 72 cents for every dollar a man makes? Blacks are worse than that, and Hispanics are worse than that. And those are facts. Until those equities are corrected, then we are not equal. It is not fair.
So you think it’s exactly the same as when you were growing up, just a little more covert?
It’s not exactly the same, no. The reason is that there are several men that are the age of my daughter now that saw their mothers, their single mothers that worked and made a living, and they have a tremendous respect for women in the workplace. There are men smart enough today and their ego is not so big that they don’t mind that their wives make more. But there is still strong discrimination in the workplace, in the judicial system, in the medical profession, everywhere, but it’s covered more discreetly now. But it is there. Whether it’s discussed over a golf game or somewhere else, it definitely still exists.
Do you feel that women entrepreneurs face excessive roadblocks when seeking funding for their investments, or their start-ups?
Of course we do. Absolutely. That goes without saying. I have been so angry over the years because of the blatant discrimination in lending. I look at what could have been done in the beginning if I had been allowed to have had what should have been — what factually, dot the Is, cross the Ts, should have happened then.
It didn’t happen simply because I squat to pee. Excuse my French. It does make me angry to look back at it. But banks are getting smart and lending institutions are getting smart in the fact that they realize that women are better risks than men.
Why do you think it’s important for women entrepreneurs to gather and network and share their ideas?
Because sometimes you feel like you’re the only one in the world. You feel like you’re the only one that’s ever been beat. You feel like you’re the only one that’s ever been down, that never had enough money for food. You feel alone. And when you network, all at once, you find other women that have had similar situations to yours, and sometimes theirs is even more so.
And in sharing, it gives you the courage to try again. And you also experience happiness, or I do, when I see the success of another woman that has overcome obstacles in her life. It really motivates me. One of the things that’s happening on June 10 is Avon’s Women of Enterprise Awards in New York. That is one of the most motivating things that have ever happened in my life. I never got along well with women because I was different, it was usually women that laughed at me and made fun of me. The female of the species, you know.
This group is so different because you can let down your shields, you can be what you truly are, and you can cry if you choose to, and it’s understood, and you’re not laughed at for crying or for simply feeling. And therefore, you can truly be a woman, but you don’t have to talk about garden clubs. You can talk about interest rates. You can talk about access to capital. You can talk about equipment. You can talk about insurance problems. Whatever. You can still have an intelligent business conversation, but you can do it with emotion.
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