Alexis Russell of Russell General Contracting speaks at the Building Growth Cohort orientation. Pictured at left is Kris Robinson of KL Heavy Construction. Photo courtesy of Bridgeway Capital.

Seven Black-owned construction business owners and contractors are learning how to grow their companies through a program offered by Bridgeway Capital, a community development nonprofit

The 2023 Building Growth Cohort is part of Bridgeway Capital’s Building Inclusive Development program, which helps to alleviate challenges associated with bidding for contractors and acquiring real estate for developers.

Each participant will complete a free six-month intensive course to increase profitability and success for their emerging or established business. The program began in February and will run until August.

Applicants to the Building Growth Cohort had to be Black-owned small businesses in Southwestern Pennsylvania established prior to 2021 with an annual gross revenue under $250,000 or average construction contracts under $100,000. One-fourth of the 20 applicants were Black women contractors and two were included in the cohort.

While the cohort initially was intended to accommodate five participants, the overwhelming applicant pool pushed Bridgeway Capital to expand the group. Bridgeway staff and other Pittsburgh-area industry experts will help guide the program.

“The sessions will enable this group of diverse, dynamic contractors to take their businesses to the next level,” says Roderick Ramsey III, program manager for Building Inclusive Development at Bridgeway Capital. “Their skills are already unmatched, they are active in their communities and now we can provide them the education and support they need to grow the financial and operational fundamentals of their businesses.” 

Entrepreneurs will receive more than 40 hours of professional training and coaching on identifying, securing and managing large-scale construction projects. The content emphasizes administrative and financial strengthening so these businesses can take on larger projects.

Participants also receive three months of post-graduation support, up to $3,000 for supportive services during sessions and an additional $3,000 after graduation.

The 2023 cohort includes services such as HVAC, demolition, electrical, plumbing and general contracting.

Alexis Russell is co-owner of Russell General Contracting. She received her degree in architecture from Temple University in 2007 and worked at Philadelphia firms until the 2008 recession.

“I was the low kid on the totem poll and the first one out the door when they were doing layoffs,” Russell says. “I realized quickly that being a registered architect was, frankly, kind of boring. I’m very social and out and about and colorful, so sitting in front of a computer all day wasn’t my idea of a good time.”

Russell partnered with her husband, a union carpenter who was also laid off at the time and started Russell General Contracting.

“It wasn’t a dream we always had,” Russell says. “We decided to combine our skills and start something.”

The Russells started small, working around their own house and doing kitchen and bathroom projects for friends. After working with some friends who had investment properties, they began full property restorations and small-scale commercial projects.

Roderick Ramsey III, program manager for Bridgeway Capital’s Building Inclusive Development program, speaks at the Building Growth Cohort orientation. Photo courtesy of Bridgeway Capital.

Russell General Contracting has done work for Wigle Whiskey in Ross Park Mall and their expansion onto Smallman Street. They have also completed work for the Happy Day Dessert Factory on the North Side, the Pittsburgh Promise offices in the Hill District, and Fudge Farm at the Waterfront. The business also just finished stabilization for the National Opera House in Homewood.

Russell has served on the boards of a number of nonprofits. She is currently vice president of the board for the Greenwood Plan, a Black woman-led organization that incubates small businesses and provides resources for small Black businesses as they grow. 

“It’s hard enough to put together a team of builders and carpenters and subcontractors and start swinging hammers and laying flooring and painting and drywall and deliver a final product,” Russell says. “What we were desperately in need of was support on the backend — the things that small businesses push to the wayside because we as the owners tend to just take on that stuff ourselves until it just gets to become too cumbersome and you can’t do it.”

Kris Robinson is the owner of KL Heavy Construction. He grew up in Homewood and graduated from Westinghouse High School. After graduating in 2009, Robinson became a heavy highway carpenter and has been part of the union since 2010. In 2019, he co-founded KL Heavy Construction as an LLP. Recently, Bridgeway helped Robinson transition to an LLC.

“This program has really been helping us out and took away a lot of the expenses for our legal services, accounting and cleaning up our books,” Robinson says. “Being a small business, things like that really matter.”

KL Heavy Construction completes many home renovation projects as well as a short-term parking garage project at Pittsburgh International Airport.

“It’s giving us the opportunity for our business to grow,” Robinson says.

“They are an amazing group of contractors,” Ramsey says. “They’re so intelligent, so engaged, and participation and attendance is at one hundred percent. It’s so organic listening to the facilitator share information and allowing space for the contractors to have a dialogue with each other.”

Ethan Woodfill

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.