Trinette Johnson-Williams, owner of TJ Builds
Trinette Johnson-Williams has been building for more than 20 years. After working as a project manager in software development for FedEx for a couple of decades, she wanted to make the leap into full-time construction project management. After some words of advice from her wife to “just quit FedEx and go do it,” Johnson-Williams began applying for construction jobs in Memphis.
“I had been building for so long that I thought I could just go right into it, but about 80 unanswered applications later, I realized that might not be the case,” she says. Disappointed but not defeated, Johnson-Williams completed a technical certificate in architectural and construction fundamentals from Southwest Tennessee Community College.
After the completion of the technical certificate, Johnson-Williams was brought on as an intern at Grinder Haizlip Construction. “I worked with them for four months,” she says. “I thought doors were opening.” However, after the internship, Johnson-Williams continued struggling to find full-time employment. She entered into an online Master’s Degree program at Drexel University. She submitted more job applications and received more rejections. After a short-lived internship culminating in an unfulfilling full-time job doing mainly administrative work, Johnson-Williams decided to take a different approach.
“I thought, ‘you know what? I can do this myself.’ I’m not going to let somebody tell me I can’t. I will hire myself if no one else does,” she says. “I opened TJ Builds because no one would give me a chance. But I don’t have to play in their sandbox, I can build my own.”
Johnson-Williams launched TJ Builds in June 2018 at the Memphis Literary Arts Festival, where she met her first clients through their interest in sample bookcases she created for a silent auction. A few months into running the business, Johnson-Williams noticed a pattern of friends calling to ask for clarification on construction language for renovation projects in their home. “People were calling and saying ‘I don’t know what these contractors are saying, I don’t trust them in my house.’ I can serve as a translator,” she says. Now, Johnson-Williams offers owner representation for commercial and residential properties in her suite of services.
Johnson-Williams recently completed the CO.STARTERS program alongside several other entrepreneurs. “CO.STARTERS took me outside of my comfort zone, but in a good way,” she says. “It challenged me to be okay with talking about my business instead of feeling like I shouldn’t say anything unless I’m asked.”
Only 13% of construction firms in the United States are women-owned, and only 3.7% of construction firms are black-owned. “Construction is very male-dominated, and they assume when they’re dealing with women, we’re not going to understand or that they can talk over us because we have no real choice,” she says. Johnson-Williams would like to see more women in the industry in the future. She is particularly interested in offering educational opportunities for women as her business grows. “I meet a lot of women who would love to know how to build things, and I’m happy showing it. I don’t want women to be a totally lost and forgotten group of people,” she says.
Johnson-Williams will attend the graduation ceremony for her Master’s program in March 2019. She is the only woman in her capstone class.
Twenty years after borrowing her dad’s circular saw for her first building project (“He finally let me borrow it when I promised not to cut off my finger.”), TJ Builds is a reality. More than one hundred rejected job applications later, Johnson-Williams builds for clients every day. “I’ll be honest, I check a lot of boxes of things people don’t necessarily like. Black, female, lesbian, a little boyish in my demeanor. I guess to some people that means I don’t deserve a chance or shouldn’t have the job. But I’m not trying to compete with anyone. I just want to be happy,” she says. “And I’m super happy with a hard hat on. I love doing what I do.”