J. Kelly Hoey

Innovator Insights: Detroit’s Karen Burton, Founder @buildingsource

Name: Karen A.D. Burton Title: Founder and Chief Strategist at Building Industry Resources, LLC and Founder of SpaceLab, LLC at Building Industry Resources, LLC Twitter: @buildingsource

Karen Burton is founder and chief strategist of Building Industry Resources LLC, a marketing and business development consultancy serving professionals and creatives who enhance the built environment. She is also founder of SpaceLab Detroit, a startup that inspires creativity and disrupts the AEC industry through the exploration of new technology and innovative processes, with a coworking space in the works. Karen has a degree in Architecture from the University of Michigan and has worked in architecture and construction for over 25 years. She is marketing and PR chairperson of the Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction; treasurer of the National Organization of Minority Architects — Detroit; member of the Society of Marketing Professional Services; and Associate Member of the American Institute of Architects.

Me: Why are you an entrepreneur?

Karen: When I was in college, I worked for a very small construction company — one carpenter who hired contract trade employees as he needed them for a job. I worked in his office doing administrative work and assisting with his bid proposals, accounting and other business operations. As a separate business of my own, I did some architectural drawings for his clients. I took in everything I could and begin to work with him on streamlining his business processes and looking at other business models for home improvement businesses.

After graduating, I was working for a staffing company as a facility engineer at one of Detroit’s Big Three auto manufacturers. I realized, “Hey, this staffing firm is taking a portion of my paycheck.” So, I sent out brochures and resumes to local architecture firms offering my design and computer-aided drafting services on a contract basis. This was during a time of a construction boom, so companies needed to staff up. I was hired by the largest architecture firm in Detroit, and soon got other work. I liked the flexibility, making my own schedule, and working on a variety of projects.

While working with smaller architecture firms, I realized that while many owners were successful in their design work, they struggled with business operations. I’d been working on my MBA and loved my marketing courses, so at the time of the 2008 recession when work was slow, I decided to transition to assisting small firms who didn’t have an in-house marketing staff. I created a niche service — based on my education and work experience — to work with architects, engineers, and contractors on their marketing and business development.

I guess entrepreneurship is also in my blood. One of my great-grandfathers owned a dry cleaners, my grandparents owned a grocery store, and an uncle started and sold a very successful tech company.

Me: What problem would you like solved?

Karen: Equal pay for equal work. Recognizing that a woman’s contributions in the workplace are just as valuable as a man’s.

Me: Advice you’d wished you’d had or had followed?

Karen: Delegate as much as possible. You can’t do it all yourself.

Me: What does success look like for you?

Karen: Doing what I love, making a good living from it, making a positive difference in my communities (family, friends, colleagues, neighbors), and sharing what I have to help someone else reach their goals. Monetary success is great, but having the freedom to do what you love is priceless.

Me: Who are your heroes?

Karen: My grandmothers! My paternal grandparents owned a neighborhood grocery store in Flint, Michigan — they opened it in 1947. My grandfather worked in the foundry, and my grandmother, Iva Davis, ran the store. She was an entrepreneur when it was rare to see black women in that role. Not only did she operate the store, she was the butcher, the HR manager, and accountant. Since the family only had one car, she would gather her small children and their playpen and toys, and take a cab to work. Her children who weren’t in school went to work with her.

My maternal grandmother, Claudia Louise Tarver, was trained as a nurse in the Jim Crow era south. She moved to Flint and became the first black nursing administrator at the largest hospital in the city in the 1950s.

My grandmothers didn’t let anything stop them from what they we called to do. Knowing what they accomplished inspires me.

Me: What is your best discovery?

Karen: A new museum or exhibit to get lost in, or a perfectly placed lounge chair on a beach so quiet that I can fall asleep to the sound of the ocean waves.

Me: What would the title of your biography be?

Karen: Under Construction

Me: What is your biggest regret?

Karen: No regrets, just life lessons. I made decisions that I thought were the best at the time. Well, if they didn’t work out, I tried to learn from the mistake and apply the lesson to the next experience.

Me: Anything else we should know about (product launch, crowdfunding or marketing campaign, recent interview, job openings..)?

Karen: I recently started SpaceLab, LLC. The goal is to have a coworking space open this year for built environment professionals in Detroit. We began by hosting a MeetUp group to begin building community and interest. The response has been fantastic. I’m excited for the growth!


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