Young Asian-American businesswoman fights to succeed

Monday, June 14, 2004

Nikki Stallion's loft apartment in downtown Cape Girardeau screams femininity. The air is filled with soft sounds from the world music group Vas and the fragrance from scented candles and a huge bouquet of flowers on the living room coffee table. The room has designer couches, antique wooden furniture and hardwood floors. In the back, her queen-sized bed is stocked with fluffy pillows, and in the perfumed bathroom the toilet seat is left down.

But in the heart of the dwelling, the kitchen, the feminine touches stop.

Directly in front of the refrigerator sits a hulking black drafting desk, its surface obscured by a laptop computer, a printer and stacks of papers. At any time, a ring of Stallion's cell phone can turn this desk into the bustling hub of a new construction company, ZanneCo Inc.

Having kicked off her heeled sandals, Stallion paces in front of the desk as she talks to a client on the phone. Dressed in black business slacks with white pinstripes and a sleeveless black blouse, Stallion answers the phone and does the paperwork at this company, but she's not a secretary. At this desk she's Miss Stallion, the boss, a 31-year-old Asian-American woman who owns and operates an industrial construction company.

A man's worldAfter seven years of working for her father's construction company, Mac Con Co., Stallion has had plenty of time to get a handle on the issue of gender. It's just one of three "targets" on her back, she said, the others being her Korean ethnicity and her youth. But of the three, being a woman in a male-dominated industry has been the hardest for Stallion to overcome.

On the way to becoming vice president of her father's company, she had to break through some people's belief that women are too weak or emotional to be successful in this business and earn the respect of clients and co-workers.

"I have been mistaken for a secretary, ignored and not been taken seriously," Stallion said. "At first, I was really naive to the threat a woman poses to some men."

Given the challenges her career poses for a young woman, one question is why she chose the path in the first place. She didn't. It chose her.

When she was growing up in Cape Girardeau and Jackson, Stallion's father, Mike Stallion, worked as a civil engineer and surveyor for several companies. In 1987, he started Mac Con. She attributes her knack for construction and building improvement to his influence.

"I grew up in this business," she said. "While other girls were playing with dolls, I was hanging sheet rock with dad in our basement."

Mike Stallion recalls his daughter always being comfortable in overalls, which she wore regularly until she was in her teens. He said they were almost never clean.

"She'd always be covered in dirt, sawdust or paint," he recalled. He also remembers Nikki having a fondness for equipment. She was in the seat of a tractor, running the controls, by age 6.

But that little tomboy grew into a young woman who, while working odd jobs for her dad's company in high school, became less and less interested in building things. By the time she was ready to go to college in Mississippi in 1991, she was preparing for a career as a social worker and ready to get out of Southeast Missouri.

A proposal

But that career didn't pan out. Neither did her subsequent move to Chicago, where she got into retail sales management. In 1994, she went back to work for Mac Con for a summer. She began as a gofer, pulling a trailer full of parts and materials behind an F-150 pickup to work sites, then graduated to the concrete crew, where she learned to endure hours under the sun. But she and her father could not get along, and her second stint in construction ended with the summer.

"I was just a punk kid," she said.

Her father said they just saw things too differently. She decided to go back into retail and again got the itch to leave the area, still searching for her identity.

Three years after leaving Mac Con for the second time, Stallion found her identity in a sheet of paper lying face down on a table at Ruby Tuesday's in Cape Girardeau. She had come to meet her father for lunch and discuss her plan to move to Washington, D.C. What she hadn't counted on was the offer her father brought to the table.

In 1997, Mac Con was a growing company in need of additional management. The paper was a proposal, a one-year contract to work as an estimator and purchaser for Mac Con. The terms were simple: If she didn't like the job after those 12 months, her father would move her anywhere she wanted to go.

Looking at the job description in the contract, she had a realization. She had been looking for her niche, a place where she belonged. The person described in the contract her father had typed up sounded familiar.

"The position described was who I was," she said. Organizational and negotiation skills, being able to create systems and processes, these were all attributes she felt she possessed. She signed. After six months, she told her father not to worry about the contract.

Coming to termsHer transition into management was anything but smooth. For the first time, her gender became a real issue. The problem was that others weren't making it an issue so much as she was.

"I would try to overcompensate," she recalled. "In negotiations, I'd try to outtalk, out-yell everyone. I'd try to overpower everyone. I was not easy to work with." Her father said she put up a shell to protect herself from the possibility -- and often the reality -- that some people couldn't see past the fact she was a woman. But both Stallions agreed that the overpowering negotiator was not the real Nikki.

As she took on more responsibility at the company, she began to mellow. Good things happened.

Mike Stallion said she began to use her gender, race and age to her advantage rather than her detriment. As a minority, he said, she was more accepting of other people. She also was a little tougher.

She moved up, sometimes taking responsibility for big clients who required more attention. Eventually, she was promoted to vice president. But as she moved up, she and her father decided it might be time to attack a fourth "target" that may have been placed on her back: The label of daddy's little girl.

Hence, ZanneCo (the E being silent as in her middle name, Suzanne), her new company, incorporated in January. As of today, the new industrial construction business will have its own payroll. Although her father is a minority owner in the venture, she will be running the day-to-day operations. She's the boss.

During her rapid ascent through management, Stallion said she's worked with more and more women in architecture, engineering and other aspects of the industry. Although she characterized it as a slow progression, she said she can see some of the social barriers being breached for women in the industry.

"There is still a general feeling of gender bias in our industry and others," she said. "But it is definitely getting better."

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