Consulting firm receives Small Business Administration recognition
"A construction management and consulting company has been named the 2018 Vermont Woman-Owned Business of the Year," stated a press release issued by the Vermont District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "Mel Baiser and Kate Stephenson, owners of Helm Construction Solutions, are being recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration for employment growth, financial success, expansion and community involvement."
"I don't identify as a woman, but as genderqueer. The SBA doesn't have a category for people who are trans or gender non-conforming — yet" Baiser told The Reformer, followed by a chuckle.
Genderqueer is also defined as "A person whose gender expression is neither clearly feminine nor clearly masculine or does not conform to mainstream society's expectations of gender roles," according to Our Bodies Ourselves.
Nevertheless, Baiser and Stephenson are delighted to have received recognition from the SBA.
"As a small but growing business, it is a huge honor to be named Woman-Owned Business of the Year," stated Stephenson in the press release. "Our goal is to produce high performing businesses with a 'triple bottom line,' socially responsible approach and at the same time be part of creating high performance, energy efficient, and low-carbon buildings. We are also working hard to help bring more gender equity into the construction trades, which have traditionally had very low representation from women, transgender and gender nonconforming people."
Helm Construction Solutions offers a range of services, but primarily works to help small business owners develop their companies and manage the construction of energy efficient buildings. With offices in Montpelier and Brattleboro, Helm has clients throughout the country that include contractors, designers, institutions, homeowners and business owners.
Helm began as Baiser Construction Management six years ago. In 2016, Baiser and Stephenson partnered and re-branded as Helm Construction Solutions.
"When I initially started this business in 2012 I never fully anticipated the demand," Baiser stated in the press release. "We're now working with over 50 clients across the country on a wide range of innovative projects and helping construction-related business owners balance the priorities of People, Profit and Planet as they grow their businesses. Part of our mission at Helm is to revolutionize the building process one company and one project at a time. We particularly enjoy working with building owners to help them navigate through the complexities of construction - be it permitting, selecting the team, cost planning and scheduling."
Before Stephenson partnered with Baiser, she was the executive director of Yestermorrow Design Build School, in Waitsfield, a non-profit educational organization that teaches design and construction to adults.
"I was there for more than 13 years in a variety of different roles before ending up as executive director," said Stephenson.
This work is personal for Stephenson and Baiser. Both come from families with roots in the construction industry. Stephenson's father was a builder in Norwich and Baiser, a seventh-generation Vermonter, comes from a family of builders and farmers in the Northeast Kingdom.
"As many Vermont youth do, I went as far away as possible, to college in Oregon, where I studied sociology," said Baiser. After graduation, Baiser lived in the Bay Area for about a decade, initially working as a community organizer.
During that time, Baiser worked with a friend to renovate a house.
"I fell in love with it," said Baiser. "It led me down a path of working in the trades. Starting off as an apprentice carpenter, I worked in the construction trades for many years. But eventually, I realized I really enjoy the process and the communication with clients. I went back to school for construction management and became a project manager and eventually an estimator."
Baiser returned to Vermont, settling in Brattleboro and getting a job as a project manager for Bensonwood in Walpole, N.H. In 2012, Baiser became a parent, with wife Rebecca Baiser, a teacher at Hilltop Montessori in Brattleboro.
"I decided it was time to go out on my own," said Baiser. "I wanted to have a little more control and the option of choosing who I was going to work with. I didn't know if it would work — it's a unique model — so I started out working on an as-needed basis for local companies, helping them learn to estimate, the principles of project management and to help them get their businesses in order."
"We work with contractors, builders and architects to help them with the back end of their business operations," said Stephenson. "When Mel started out, they saw how inefficient and frustrating the process can be for so many small businesses. Mel wanted to help them develop better business systems to improve their business model and help them make better decisions."
Among the local commercial projects Helm has assisted with are the Hermit Thrush Brewery on High Street, the former Little City Bakery on Main Street (now Superfresh Cafe) and Mama's Hand Made Italian Restaurant in downtown Ludlow. Helm also has clients throughout New England, in California, Colorado and even St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said Stephenson.
"I don't know anyone else that does what we do," she said. "Other business consultants are focused on how to make more money. We are focused on the triple bottom line, which is not just about making a profit, but making sure our clients have a sustainable company."
"So many people in construction companies and design/build firms didn't get into the trades as business people," said Baiser. "Most of the folks in the trades excel as craftspeople and working with their hands. We are very passionate about helping these companies become more sustainable for them, their families and their communities."
Despite the success of their business model, said Baiser, it's taken some patience for them to prove their merits in an industry that is dominated by men.
"I have been in the field and have experienced the impacts of patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia," said Baiser. "And women, traditionally having the care-taking role, have had to deal with what I call the 'pick-up-the-socks syndrome.' We are not here to pick up their dirty socks. We are here to empower them and help provide them with the tools to take their business to the next level."
Baiser and Stephenson have also worked for non-traditional companies that may have lots of confidence in their hard skills but are less confident when it comes to their business and communication skills.
"Our goal is to level the playing field," said Baiser. "And as representatives of these companies we are bringing a social justice lens to it."
But to benefit themselves and their families while offering good-paying jobs to the community, companies still have to have a functioning business model that isn't constantly experiencing cash-flow problems, said Baiser, and that's where Helm comes in, helping business owners put in place structures that can help them thrive.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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