Editor’s note - Katherine Fairbanks, CEO of of DirtyGirl Disposal, will be a panelist at “Women in Power and Control of Family Business” sponsored by the Family Business Association on September 11.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry can be an intimidating endeavor. I speak from first-hand experience running a company in the waste industry, where only about 1 percent of businesses are managed by women.
But being a “dirty girl” in the rough-and-tumble world of waste hauling also has its rewards, chief among them having persevered building a company - powered by all female drivers - that continues to grow market share in central Massachusetts. There is also the satisfaction of seeing three children grow up during the company’s tough years and learn some valuable lessons about business and people.
DirtyGirl Disposal is in business to provide roll-off containers and compactors to haul trash, construction and demolition waste and recyclable waste. We can also provide the labor to clear out the debris from your location.
We are located in the Worcester area and provide services within a 30-mile radius. That translates to areas just West of Boston to just East of Springfield, along the Route 2 Corridor (approximately Athol to Acton), up to the Fitchburg area and down to the Connecticut border. There are plans to expand our service area, as we continue to grow.
Our customers include residential accounts, property managers, commercial accounts, small businesses and contractors.
Some of the challenges I have faced underscore a persistent and insidious sexism that runs through industries in which women have not traditionally held leadership roles. Other challenges reflect the everyday complexities of running a small, family business.
I recall vividly standing in a courtroom 12 years ago as a judge deciding the fate of a predecessor company told me, “Go home and take care of your children. This is not a woman’s business.” Several years later, I was negotiating with a contractor working for the state (there are guidelines suggesting the integration of women, minority, veteran and other disadvantaged groups into state spending) when the procurement person said to me, “We pay our current hauler x dollars. Give us a proposal for 20 percent less.”
I kept thinking, how is this justified? My business has the same equipment, the same labor costs, and the same (or higher) disposal costs. I gave the company a proposal that was 8-10 percent less than what they were paying and we’ve not seen any work to date.
Ultimately, however, I don’t believe the way to navigate gender-based disparities or challenges is to be an in your face, make it change, force the issue kind of woman. My style is much more relaxed and subtle. I believe in communication and collaboration. I know that we can provide exceptional service. I know that there are people out there in the business world who get it.
DirtyGirl Disposal is proof, as we continue to scale our business. I know the differences that we are making in our little corner are setting a precedent and empowering other women to believe in themselves.
And we’re having fun doing it. For example, we name our disposal containers after inspirational women in history – Rosie the Riveter, suffragette Alice Paul, abolitionist Harriett Tubman and environmentalist Rachel Carson. One of our most popular tongue-in-cheek marketing tag lines is: “Ever been dumped by a DirtyGirl?”
The challenges and opportunities of being a female owner are magnified by the complex dynamics of family business. Having three children involved in a company means balancing the need for efficiency, customer service and accountability with all the moods, disorganization and communication issues that go along with raising children.
It’s been quite a learning experience for my son and two daughters. They have seen customers cancel service and new customers sign up for service. They've heard stories of satisfaction and fielded complaints. And they have used that experience to develop a keen understanding of the ways in which businesses succeed.
We now celebrate together the success that has come from the challenges that have made us what we are.