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Onquata co-founders

Lise and Lara Siouï, co-founders of Onquata.

Building inclusivity into the home renovation industry

Ursula Leonowicz

By Ursula Leonowicz

The construction industry is facing a talent shortage across the country as experienced tradespeople age into retirement in high numbers. In fact, according to a recent report by the Canadian Construction Association, 22 percent of the workforce is expected to retire by 2028.  

To replenish numbers, the association suggests the industry should make a focused effort to recruit traditionally underrepresented groups such as women, Indigenous peoples, and newcomers. Diversity and inclusion are important in every aspect of society,  and unfortunately, the construction, engineering, design, and architecture industries are sorely lacking. For example, the latest Statistics Canada data reveals that while women account for nearly half of the national workforce, they represent only 12% of the construction labor force. 

Bringing underrepresented artisans and business owners into the fold is a meaningful way to build stronger, more inclusive communities. We asked five entrepreneurs in Montreal to share their career paths and thoughts on diversity in the home renovation industry.  

Sandra Best, interior designer and founder, Sandra Best Decor

Sandra Best, interior designer and founder, Sandra Best Decor.

Sandra Best, interior designer and founder, Sandra Best Decor

When did your interest in interior design begin to develop? 

Sandra Best: I’ve always had an interest in interior design. I share the interest with my mom who has always had an immaculate style and home. However, I never saw design as a career path but rather a hobby, so I applied in English literature and communications when the time came for university. When I got my first apartment, I got many "gigs" helping friends and family design their spaces.

Modern bathroom renovation

Modern bathroom design by Sandra Best Decor.

How would you describe your design style? Where do you find your inspiration? 

SB: I'm personally drawn to a mix of different styles such as contemporary and Bohemian. And it’s my belief that no room is complete without the addition of a vintage piece.

Tell us about your journey as a designer. What made you decide to start your own business? 

SB: I loved interior design but never thought I could do it as a career. In my early 30s, I had a time of reflection and decided to change the course of my life professionally and personally. I also became a mother for the first time. I went back to school and took a short program, earning a technical degree at LaSalle College. 

Initially, I didn't want to start my business right away: I had a five-year plan. However, I was hired by an established designer in Montreal who was so disorganized that he didn't even have time to train me. I left his firm and was confident that if he could run a design business, so could I! The process of starting a business was scary. I suffered from imposter syndrome but I'm really blessed to have a spouse and a network of friends who believed in me.

Luxury bathroom with two vanities

Luxury bathroom design by Sandra Best Decor.

What's your approach when working with clients? 

SB: I love visiting my clients’ homes to get a sense of how they currently use their space. Often, as I walk through the home, it's not uncommon to find an item that becomes the jumping-off point for the design vision. After my visit, I submit a vision board to make sure we are on the same wavelength and we work our way forward from the client's comments. 

"Sometimes I feel like an outsider and that I need to prove myself more whenever I enter a networking function or design event where I'm often the only Black person. I dream of a day where my work and professionalism will speak for itself." - Sandra Best

How has being a Black designer in a predominantly white profession shaped your experience? 

SB: Like in many aspects of life, representation matters. I find it sad that when I look at the mainstream media there are not a lot of featured interior designers that also happen to be Black. When looking at television channels that specialize in design or even magazines, the majority of the people featured are white. 

Sometimes I feel like an outsider and that I need to prove myself more whenever I enter a networking function or design event where I'm often the only Black person. I dream of a day where my work and professionalism will speak for itself.

Anthony Pradel, Excellent Pavage

Anthony Pradel, commercial director and business development, Excellent Pavage.

Anthony Pradel, commercial director and business development, Excellent Pavage

When did your interest in paving and landscaping begin? 

Anthony Pradel: One of my good buddies from CEGEP was working for a paving company and decided that he wanted to start his own business. I was doing a lot of consulting at the time so he asked me to help him with the business plan. Within a year he asked me to partner with him, so I did. That was more than 15 years ago. 

What was the business development process like?

AP: We started with small, residential repairs and one truck. Now, we have a dozen trucks of different sizes for different types of paving work all over the city. It took around two years for us to get a clear vision of what we could do, as a small paving business, to help achieve our business goal, which was to encourage repeat business. 

Our business model revolves around repeat customers in both the residential and commercial markets, such as in shopping centers, for example, where they call us back every year for maintenance and repairs. This gives us a more secure base from which to grow our business.

Freshly paved driveway

Paving by Excellent Pavage.

What approach do you take when working with clients?

AP: Whenever I train a new employee on the sales team, the first thing I tell them is that we’re not selling asphalt, we’re selling ourselves. It’s important for clients to feel like the human being they’re dealing with inspires confidence and trust. That’s why someone chooses to place their home in your hands. 

There’s no lack of asphalt or asphalt companies but what’s going to differentiate you from them is the personalized, one-on-one service that you give to each customer, in addition to the technical knowledge that you have. You have to establish yourself as a transparent person who has their best interests at heart.

Patio stone terrace

Patio stone terrace by Excellent Pavage.

What are some of the main services that the company provides?

AP: We work on new constructions of asphalt, concrete, unistone, and paving stones. We do excavations, install and replace drains, landscaping, and grass work. Basically, anything that needs to be done outside, we do it.

What is your take on diversity and inclusion in construction, in Montreal?

AP: If you’re looking at the bigger table, definitely, it’s a clique. There aren’t many ethnic groups represented at that table and it’s predominantly dominated by white people. But if you look at smaller businesses and entrepreneurs, they come from a mix of backgrounds.

What did you and your business partner study in CEGEP?

AP: We both studied music, first at Vanier and then at McGill University. I’m a trumpet player and he’s a piano player. I was also an organic farmer for 15 years. I imported and exported organic fruits and vegetables to the United States and Europe before becoming a consultant and starting the paving business.

Lise and Lara Siouï, co-founders of Onquata

Lise and Lara Siouï, co-founders of Onquata.

Lara Siouï, artisan and co-founder, Onquata

When did you first know you were interested in design? 

Lara Siouï: Our interest in paddle design began a few years ago and we decided to work on our product until it was ready to be put on sale.

Paddle design wall decor

Paddle design by Onquata.

How would you describe your design style? Where do you find your inspiration? 

LS: Our style is inspired by native motifs and our culture. We find inspiration in everything that surrounds us—a setting, an object, a landscape—as well as by experimenting with different colors and motifs, spontaneously.

Onquata paddels in bedroom

Paddle design by Onquata.

Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. What made you decide to start your own business? 

LS: We decided to start the business when we started seeing strong interest from people in our community for our product. We created a website, developed new models, and promoted them. We created contacts with people that fostered partnerships with a few different distributors and allowed us to participate in events that really showcased our product.

As an Indigenous artist and entrepreneur, what's your take on diversity and inclusion in the field of design, in Quebec? 

LS: We are taking our rightful place in the market, in Quebec, as native artisan-entrepreneurs and the integration is going very well.

Yahya Diallo, COO & Co-founder of Billdr

Yahya Diallo, COO & Co-founder of Billdr.

Yahya Diallo, chief operating officer and co-founder, Billdr

Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

Yahya Diallo: I arrived in Montreal 12 years ago, for university, to study civil engineering. After graduating, I started working for a general contractor in Laval doing commercial and residential work. After that I worked for an engineering services company, WSP, where I was a project manager and consultant, mostly for McGill, taking care of the renovations in their labs. 

After that I worked for the CIUSSS du Nord, managing renovations. They’d give me a project and a budget, and I needed to make it happen. I hired professionals such as architects, engineers, and other consultants and coordinated everything, making sure that we were always responding to the needs of the end user. I managed the call for tenders with contractors, which is the bidding process, and followed up on construction sites.

Was your experience what inspired Billdr?

YD: We had the idea for Billdr about two years ago and launched in February 2020, right before the pandemic. We had a website, an app, and zero projects. In 2020, we earned a million dollars in sales. We onboarded around 25 contractors in the span of a year—professionals that share the same values as us and who we vetted carefully.   

Homeowners have been really happy with the Billdr experience, especially the estimate. Some people contact up to 10 different contractors for quotes, which is a major frustration for both contractors and homeowners, so the estimate we provide eliminates all of that.

How does Billdr work? Can you walk me through the process?

YD: After posting their project on our website or app, potential clients can schedule a free phone call with us. During that call, my goal is to understand what their needs are, and to set clear expectations. Most people tend to minimize the scope of the work required but we explain all of the steps to them, very transparently, and give them a rough estimate of the budget. 

If they decide to go forward with us, I send them an email that explains the entire process, and then conduct a paid estimate. After we have the scope and budget of the project, all of the contractors in our network can bid on it. 

Contractors are super busy these days and not everyone has the technical knowledge to deal with them, which is how we help. Once the project has started, we do regular site visits to make sure everything is going according to plan, and remain involved in the project until completion. 

"Most businesses were started years ago and passed down from generation to generation, so it’s going to take time for there to be a major change. We’re seeing more and more new, young entrepreneurs from different backgrounds emerging and technology helps because, with technology, there are fewer barriers." - Yahya Diallo

What is your take on diversity and inclusion in construction and engineering?

YD: It’s especially challenging for women. Even in engineering school, there were almost no women. I don’t have the statistics, but based on my experience, in construction, I’d say the ratio is 80-20. Even now, I’m doing interviews to hire an operations manager and out of all of the applicants, there was only one woman. In my entire life, I think I’ve only seen one woman on a work site. 

Most of the time, during meetings, I’m the only Black person at the table. I think the construction industry is very familial and generational. Most businesses were started years ago and passed down from generation to generation, so it’s going to take time for there to be a major change. 

We’re seeing more and more new, young entrepreneurs from different backgrounds emerging and technology helps because, with technology, there are fewer barriers.

My and Thien Ta Trung, élément de base

My and Thien Ta Trung, Co-founders of élément de base. Photography by La Presse, Alain Roberge, 2016.

Thien Ta Trung, designer and co-founder, élément de base (edb)

When did your interest in design and furnishings begin to develop? 

Thien Ta Trung: As far back as I can remember, I have always been into design at large. Fashion was one of my first interests, but furniture design provides a slower pace and a more perennial/timeless creative process, so that's probably why I ended up going for furniture.  

How would you describe edb's style? Where do you find your inspiration?

TTT: Our style could be summarized as simple, paired-down, architectural designs. Most of our inspiration comes from creative fields such as music, art, and fashion.

Modern living room

Modern living room design by élément de base.

Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. What made you decide to start your own business? 

TTT: When I look back at how I started, it was a matter of putting a few pieces together and setting up a collection. It's been almost 20 years since we presented our first collection. So, it's mainly a matter of toughing out lots of ups and downs, and surviving multiple economic cycles.

Pop-up at the Souk

Pop-up at the Souk design by élément de base.

What are some of your most memorable projects to date?

TTT: Over the years, we've had many fun projects. Some of our favorites were our recent pop-up either in Old Montreal or at the Souk. They are playgrounds to express edb's identity. 

What is your take on diversity and inclusion in design, in Montreal?

TTT: I think Montreal has always been a very inclusive design community, for years. Maybe decades. Designers of color have always been part of Montreal’s design scenes. There are no issues with gender nor with sexual orientation in this field either. Montreal is a very open and inclusive city on all fronts. 

The real hard part is that regardless of diversity or inclusivity, design is not easy to sell here. That’s the main challenge with product design in Montreal and Canada: finding an audience. At least that’s my view, having been around for over two decades in this industry.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

TTT: I feel there has been a slow shift in design education over the past five years, maybe thanks to Instagram. Now that everyone gets to see beautiful interiors, the level of style has really gone up tremendously. In this context, we see a lot more design studios taking off with a real clientele. More and more people understand the subtlety of shapes and textures, colours and angles, depth and proportions, slow design vs. fast design, sustainable vs. disposable. It's a very promising time!

Billdr is always looking to diversify its network of general contractors in Montreal and Toronto. We’d love to hear from you.

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Author

Ursula Leonowicz

A freelance writer based in Montreal who writes about design, architecture and real estate, Ursula Leonowicz is a regular contributor to the Montreal Gazette’s New Homes & Condos section. She also has her own blog, citycountry bumpkin. Growing up, she painted her bedroom a different colour every year; much to the horror of her parents.

Follow her on Instagram & LinkedIn.

About

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Billdr Magazine is an online publication packed with design trends and inspiration, expert insights, and personal home renovation stories. From planning a major renovation to navigating construction and maintaining your beautiful home, Billdr Magazine is here for you.