Building Community — Literally: Nina Zunt, a Woman in Contracting, Is Leading With Purpose

Nina Zunt (Brian O’Doherty)

Nina Zunt, owner of EHS Maryland LLC, a contracting company serving clients throughout Maryland and the Washington, D.C. metro area, is part of a select group—a female leader of a contracting firm at a time when women make up less than 10% of the construction workforce in the United States.

Speaking with her, it’s easy to see the reason for her success: a combination of determination and self-assurance that has pushed her to “hope to be, on a very small scale, one of the glass ceiling-breakers.”

Zunt, 35, grew up in Baltimore, not thinking she’d end up in the construction industry. Her original goals lay in the restaurant and hospitality fields; she studied culinary arts, chef training and hospitality management at Baltimore International College and worked as a chef at AIDA Bistro.

At the time, her father was working as a small-scale independent construction contractor, an industry he’d been in throughout her childhood. Zunt began helping him with the sales and organization side of his business, and, she reminisces, “just kind of never left.”

After working for her father and later for MHI Maryland, Zunt opened her own business in 2014. “I’m a very passionate person,” she says. “I’m a very opinionated person. … It’s obviously a very male-dominated industry, but there are also a lot of women that work in it and a lot of women that contribute to it, [who] make it so much better.”

She’s dealt with these biases herself and continues to do so. “I think we have a long way to go as a society, accepting women in the industry. The biggest thing I deal with—my joke with my staff—is whenever I go out on a big meeting or big [pre-construction] or meeting a client, they always look around like, ‘When is the contractor showing up?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, no, that’s me, you’re looking at her!’” There are more hurdles to jump, she notes. “I’ll never be a part of the old boys’ club. I think it’s the same in any industry for a woman, though—even though we are making strides, there’s still a long way to go. I’m having to do double the work. I’m having to prove even simple stuff at a pre-con, whereas a man isn’t questioned if he knows something or not; it’s just assumed that he knows what you’re talking about.” She says she often gets questioned every step of the way in her work, despite her extensive qualifications. “There’s a lot of that, but there’s also a lot of change that can be made. Some of the more positive things [being that] we have a lot of interns that work with us … and I’ve had a lot of female students come, and it makes me hopeful.”

Zunt is committed to making change herself, and not just through example. “I’m out to hire women,” she says. “Women are my first choice. Minorities are my first choice … the people that are always looked over [are], because I feel like on a bigger scale [to my business], I’m the one who’s always looked over.” Her business has all the official certifications—minority-owned, woman-owned, small business—but she notes that even within these lengthy processes and government initiatives aimed at enforcing equality throughout contracting, there’s still rampant bias.

Her answer? To continue on.

“It’s just basically getting the word out there, going to as many workshops as you can, as many women groups as you can, and just being a part of the team for change,” she says.

Besides her focus on underrepresented employees, other passions of hers within the industry are building environmentally friendly and sustainability-minded projects, as well as developing an expert in-house team. “I’ve worked really hard to try and keep everything—or at least as much as I can—in-house,” she says.

An average contractor or construction company tends to be run by one (usually male) leader with office help and several subcontractors, essentially hiring out to other companies to do different jobs. In Zunt’s case, “I’ve tried to have everyone in-house. … At the end of the day, I’m not only liable and responsible, but I’m also the face [of the business], so I feel more comfortable saying ‘These people are part of my organization, they follow my beliefs, they follow my rules … everything I’ve laid out.’ That’s my niche,” she says.

Her favorite part of her work? Getting to explore the extensive worlds of other businesses.

“I’ve gotten to see so many cool careers outside of my own, just from these contracts,” she says. Whether it’s military bases in Hawaii, a fish hatchery for the Department of Natural Resources, blood drawing centers for CVS or rooms with bank safes for Woodforest National Bank, “I get to learn so much about other industries, just from being in this industry.”

Aside from her contracting business, Zunt also founded and currently runs a nonprofit organization, EHS Community Affairs LLC, which focuses on putting on monthly events for children in the Baltimore area while building relationships between neighbors and small local businesses. “I’m big about keeping the money … in the community. If people in the community are hiring me and I’m hiring and helping them, it benefits everyone,” she explains.

She has a huge soft spot for children in need, having grown up in a single-parent household, with her father taking on the roles of both mom and dad. Feeling for children in difficult situations such as domestic violence centers or negligent parenting, she decided to create an organization to provide community care, utilizing the services of a range of local businesses and services in the area, such as DJs, food trucks, Baltimore City school boards, food stamp organizations and hospitals—the last of which helps provide instruction on insurance to parents. “It’s just been so much fun,” she says.

When asked what she is doing when she’s not at work or working with her nonprofit, Zunt laughs. “Thinking about work!” she says. “What am I doing when I’m laying in bed at 2 o’clock in the morning? More work!” However, Zunt also enjoys reading, watching her equestrian daughter ride horses and trying new foods. “Testing out every restaurant the city has to offer—if I could do that every night of the week, I would absolutely do so.”

As for her advice for women entering male-dominated fields? “Just do it,” she says. “Don’t give up, and I know that sounds so cliché … but be able to navigate the politics, be super confident, be super assertive … develop strong relationships with other women. I guess my advice would be just to push through – because it’s worth it.” And the best advice she herself has ever received? “When I graduated high school, my dad wrote me a letter and in it he included an excerpt from Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken,’” which, she notes, stuck with her forever. “I mean, it’s basically my life now, if you think about it—I took the road less traveled by, and that’s made all the difference. Going up against the odds, that’s how I look at my life.”

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