Though it made her somewhat of a black sheep in her family of accountants, Valerie McCaw already knew in junior high that she wanted to be an engineer. A self-described tomboy, she grew up playing in the dirt and was particularly fascinated by a 6th grade unit on building cities. “Math is like breathing,” she says, which makes her a fabulous fit for the world of engineering. The oldest child in her family, she always wanted to be “the boss.” In fact, initially she wanted to be a teacher, because after all – in a child’s world, the teacher is the boss. And so, after earning her degrees in engineering, she found herself attracted to the management side of the firms where she worked. When a downsizing layoff left her without a job in 2003, she wasted no time in fearlessly founding her own firm the very next day.
Not long after, she called Sarah Beers, who she had briefly overlapped with at other firms. Sarah had a passion for engineering, but after the birth of her first son she chose to stay home with him, and had done so for six years. Valerie’s phone call both startled and excited Sarah – she had wanted to get back into engineering, but enough time had lapsed that she wasn’t sure whether or not she was up to doing that kind of work again. Valerie was confident in Sarah’s abilities, so she hired Sarah as an independent contractor. Their first project together was a success, and Sarah has been a valuable contractor to VSM Engineering ever since.
VSM Engineering is a civil engineering services firm that works on municipal capital projects such as water, sewer, storm sewer, roadways, and utilities. Or as Valerie put it, “all the stuff that people don’t think about until it doesn’t work.” Sarah explained that whenever you put something manmade into the natural world, you have to take into account what the natural world was doing so that everything still works. For example, when a road is paved, rain will still fall on it, but will no longer be absorbed into the ground – so civil engineers like Valerie and Sarah decide and design where the water will go to keep it from flooding nearby buildings or backing up on the road.
Valerie says that she wanted VSM to enable her and her contractors to live their lives and do good in the world rather than focusing mainly on profits. For a period of time, both Valerie and Sarah were single moms, and being available to their children has always been their primary focus. Consequently, as projects come and go, her contractors can work more or less depending on what they need at that time. (A beautiful example was right in front of me in this interview – Sarah is currently expecting her third child. While I photographed Valerie’s office after our interview, I overheard them planning Sarah’s involvement in some projects to comfortably accommodate the birth of her child.) This family-focused, flexible environment is somewhat of a departure from the cultures of larger firms, where Valerie had often gone to work sick because she had to save vacation days for her son’s illnesses. Of course, working independently is no lounge on the beach. In particular, it requires a long, hard look at your priorities. Sarah advises entrepreneurs to decide what is really important and focus on that, recognizing that some things may need to be completely cut out of your life. Valerie hires a cleaning service, and jokes that she “hasn’t vacuumed in 20 years.” In all seriousness, no one can run a business and a household at their peaks without outside assistance. Accepting this, and “cutting yourself some slack,” Valerie says, will help you stay in business.
Aside from actively cultivating your own balance between life and work, Valerie suggests that entrepreneurs develop two main skills. The first is an ability to make decisions. Ultimately, all starting your own business requires is a firm decision. Of course, many more things come after that, but having an idea and firmly deciding to act on it is both what starts a business and keeps it running. The second skill is an ability to take risks. But risks don’t have to be solitary, all-or-nothing plunges into the unknown. Smart risks involve wisely drawing upon previous experiences and pushing yourself forward to the next step. For example, Valerie had worked for a company that asked her to start another branch, and so she had been through the process of “starting up a business” before. She had also worked for a small family firm, and understood the dynamics of a small company well. She used lessons from both experiences in starting her own firm. Thus, risk-taking is not a foolish leap of faith, but thoughtfully taking past experience and pushing forward into something new, taking many small steps along the way.
VSM is in its eighth year of operation. As we sat in Valerie’s home around her glass table, her little dog padding around underfoot, it amazed me as she rattled off the names of the major Kansas City roads that she has worked on – roads I drive over every week. Engineers truly create the world around us, keep us safe, and make our communities work well. In a fast-paced, 90% male, aggressively driven field, the last thing one might expect to find is a woman running a firm with an eye toward supporting family life, while still succeeding beautifully. I clicked my shutter and stepped quietly around Sarah and Valerie as they had a meeting, smiling to myself and thinking – this day and these women truly deserve to be remembered.
VSM Engineering’s official mascot, Scout:
Yes, yes, I know the dog is not a central character in this story, but I ask you – could you ever get enough of that little face?
To learn more about VSM Engineering and Valerie, you can click here to see her LinkedIn profile.
She also recommended http://fasttrac.org/ as a fantastic resource for startup entrepreneurs.
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