Editor’s note: Shannon Baylor-Henderson is the Chief Content Officer of Content Commanders, a full-scale content strategy & storytelling company that helps people add more power, personality & perspective to their digital, print & social content. Hailing from the nation’s capital, Shannon leads Content Commanders from Elizabeth City, where she lives with her husband and children.

ELIZABETH CITY – In 2020, Americans were faced with being required to be brutally honest about their perspectives and acceptance of the systemic racism that permeates our culture. Police brutality, biased politicians, a troublesome economy, and a disease that has traumatically taken over 250,000 lives in less than a year has proven that the American system is not only flawed but its flaws often detrimentally affect those lesser privileged and more melanated.

Nonetheless, Americans, especially African-Americans, have navigated their way through the American Dream despite the difficulties and injustices that come along with the pursuit. This is especially true for Jimmy Dillahunt, Jr., a co-owner of a small construction firm in Raleigh.

Shannon Baylor-Henderson

Dillahunt, Jr., co-owns and operates CADET Construction Company (“CADET”), a service- disabled veteran-owned company which has done business in North Carolina for the past seven years. His background includes 36 years of experience in the construction industry and cross-state projects in Virginia and South Carolina. For Dillahunt, Jr., doing business in the construction industry has been a major part of his life. He prides himself off of being a persistent business owner, who has created jobs for 25 employees and has built a company that has earned over $40 million since its inception. However, despite the great accomplishments that he has made, the hardest part isn’t the construction labor itself. It’s being a Black-owned business in this specific industry.

A ‘brutal’ business

“Everyone knows, or can suspect that the construction industry is brutal. The tough working conditions, hazards and demands aren’t for the faint of heart. But running this type of business in a space where you’re often overlooked, underpaid and disregarded is probably harder,” Dillahunt, Jr. says. “Sometimes it seems like it’s easier to construct a building on the moon than it is to win a fair-priced contract and actually get paid for it.”

Dillahunt, Jr. certainly isn’t the first and only to feel snubbed by an industry that he’s dedicated so much of his life to. While almost every business industry in America has instances of racial discrimination, which affect Blacks from building wealth and long-term self-sufficiency, the construction industry has seen some of the most challenging effects of subdued racism. From small towns to major metropolitan areas and residential to commercial and industrial projects, the construction industry accounts for over $1.29 trillion in annual revenue. However, in closely examining the construction industry, one can learn that $81.2 billion of construction revenues were earned by the top 10 companies in the industry, which are predominantly white-owned.

“I started out in this industry in the 80’s sweeping construction sites, like a lot of people do when they need a job or are an unskilled worker, but I didn’t stop there. I was very fortunate and blessed to have people to share their knowledge with me and that pushed me to keep growing,” Dillahunt, Jr. explains. His story is very similar to many African-American business owners who either started their business from passion, inherited it through family or by necessity. In growing CADET Construction, Dillahunt, Jr., decided years ago that doing business as a government general contractor and subcontractor was the best way to keep things afloat and position his business for expansion. I also realized that there were not a lot of private business opportunities because of my race; that most private businesses would never use minority contractors if they didn’t have to.

Construction contractors or subcontractors can be businesses or individuals who are specifically selected by an owner or prime contractors to perform the tasks associated with their specialized skills within the construction project. Though they may or may not deal with the client, contractors and subcontractors are required to fulfill the expectations of the scope of work to the fullest extent of the contract. Many subcontractors have found their work for major construction projects through the government’s “set aside” minority business enterprise (MBE), disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) and 8(a) certification programs, which designates a percentage of awards to different groups designated by the Small Business Administration (“SBA”) or other certifying agency byway of minority, veteran, serviced disable veteran-owned, and women owned business. This provides smaller companies with lesser capacities and competitive edges. Many Black-owned construction companies fall within the subcontractor level. The state’s Department of Administration, which includes the Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) program is dedicated to providing training, certification and opportunities to minority business-owners who wish to do business with the state government.

‘What you do isn’t only about you’

Dillahunt, Jr. accredits his preparation for this industry to what he experienced with his family’s business, employment through other companies, college, and what he learned from programs such as HUB training & certification. “There’s always something to learn and do in this industry, from a business ownership perspective”, says Dillahunt, Jr. “I had to learn how to stay in compliance with an exhaustive list of vendors, agencies and organizations, accurately and competitively bid on projects, negotiate and deal with primes [contractors], all while making sure that the people who trust me with their salaries are paid as expected. It gets really difficult, especially when one part of the puzzle just won’t cooperate.” Failure to cross every “t” and dot every “i”, according to the exact and ever-evolving specifications of the contractor & client, is subject to a breach of contract or contract non-compliance. Therefore, most subcontractors find themselves at the mercy of malicious contractors and the unethical attorneys who represent them.

Dillahunt, Jr. admits he’s had his fair share of those challenging moments, “It’s not easy showing up, doing the job, making the required and necessary changes, bending over backwards and then intentionally not getting paid because of the color of your skin. That can’t be easy for anyone no matter where you work or what you do. But imagine how tough it is when the project must be completed, regardless of the unfair treatment or regardless if you’re right and someone else is wrong. In business and in life, the race to the finish line must go in, even if other people don’t want you to win.”

This sentiment is true for African-Americans business owners, who are just starting their own companies or diligently working to stay in business. “If I could encourage anyone who has dealt with injustice in business, I would just say, remember that what you do isn’t only about you, Dillahunt, Jr. explains. “You’re serving others and making things better for other people. That’s what the best leaders do, no matter what the assignment, the customer or the industry is. We must work to make things better for everyone.”