When Cliff Cole started his career in construction more than 17 years ago, he wasn’t really thinking about race—until he landed his first job in Asheville, NC, where his boss had warned him not to visit a certain part of the state because it wasn’t safe for him. Not exactly what a young, vibrant, eager college grad wants to hear.
Now, as VDC director at PENTA Building Group, Cole is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the construction industry. He believes that with diversity comes diverse perspectives, which are sorely needed to help the industry evolve and innovate. Watch the video to learn more about Cole’s inspiring journey and hear his advice on how to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace.
Cliff Cole, VDC Director at PENTA Building Group: I’m originally from Baltimore, Maryland, and so I’m an East Coast kid through and through. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. I went to a predominantly black middle school, elementary school, high school. And I went to a historically black college, North Carolina A&T State University, graduated with an architectural engineering degree because that was really my passion. And I really wanted to get into the construction industry.
After you graduate, you want to start your career. Did you think about race? I would say honestly, yes and no. You really want to be able to show that you have the ability to do the work. And so for me, I immediately went to Asheville, North Carolina. Did I consider race at the top? No, not one bit. I was just happy that now I will get an opportunity to learn under a seasoned professional. When I got there, I had to consider race. I had to consider it because there weren’t a lot of black people. I wanted to learn as much as I wanted to, so I wanted to go out to the jobsites with my president and learn what he was doing and why he was doing it.
And one situation where I wasn’t able to go to a certain part of North Carolina because he basically told me it wasn’t safe. And when you’re really gung ho and this young, vibrant, passionate kid that just wants to learn—that’s deflating, right? And you’re back at the office basically by yourself. You feel like you’re in a group, but everybody’s looking at you, and you feel so uncomfortable. You feel like you’re this small. You feel like you’re not relevant just because of the color of your skin. Those types of things have to change.
In today’s society, we have the new generations coming into the industry. To be able to be successful and continue the growth that we need, we need to be able to improve. We need to be able to have changed. And that change comes through diversity, equity, and inclusion. It really is a business strategy. It will make each business better, which will ultimately make the industry better. We will be able to design better buildings. We will be able to engineer better buildings. We’ll be able to build better facilities. We have to bring awareness to the issues that we’re dealing with. Have the conversation. Have the dialogue. Have those honest and open conversations to understand what the issues are that we’re dealing with here in the world and potentially in the organization. It starts with leadership, right? And executives, the leaders of the company, we need buy-in and see why diversity, equity, inclusion is so important and so critical to your business.
You have to be able to give the employees a voice to feel like they are included, that they belong in the conversations. We have to be able to look at how we attract, hire, and retain the talent that we currently have. People are leaving this industry. It’s a tough industry, but we have to be better at making it so it is a diverse and inclusive culture throughout the organization and throughout each individual’s companies.
Educate yourself on what unconscious bias looks like. What does diversity inclusion look like? Why equity has to be included into that equation to make the real change that we need to be able to have in this industry. Get involved. Get involved in your organization; get involved in your community—because this is not just an AEC industry issue that we’re talking about; this is a society issue that we’re talking about. And it really starts with giving back to the community, understanding that there are young women and men out there that need support, that need guidance, that need mentorship. They need somebody to just love them and care for them and understand they are important.
And those kids then will be the future of what our industry will look like. And they will have the passion, the motivation, the drive to push limits on what we can do from an innovation standpoint. And this is not a sprint. This is a marathon; this is a journey. And the only way for us to be completely successful is if we all have the same motive and the same passion to get it done. But don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to understand that you may not have all the answers. And that’s okay, but you have to get started.
I’ve been in this industry for 17 years. I absolutely love it. I love my job. I love PENTA Building Groups. I never thought I’d be living in Las Vegas and working on amazing casinos and resorts and world-renowned restaurants and nightclubs. Never in a million years did I think that when I was a kid growing up. We’ve definitely progressed. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit here and be able to tell my story and engage in these conversations 50, 60 years ago. We need to continue that progress. Ultimately, if we as an industry can make each other better, it will also make the world better.