Water Sector Awash in Women

Quickly emerging field has proven popular with female-led startups
Illustration by Paddy Mills

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

Ten years ago, water management in New Orleans mostly meant pumping out as much stormwater as possible, as fast as possible. The water sector has since grown to become a leader in entrepreneurial opportunities, especially for women.

What drives entrepreneurism in this sector? Why are women so prominent in it? What lessons learned might be applied to other sectors?

“It’s an emerging field, so there’s a lot of opportunity, and a lot of different aspects of opportunity,” observed Arien Hall, co-founder of Mastodonte, a firm that installs stormwater management and green infrastructure systems. “You can get your start in a lot of different ways.”

Indeed, the sector includes businesses and individuals in fields as varied as landscaping, art, construction, maritime, botany and biology, engineering, and many more. This means that established firms can expand into the sector.

“It’s still a new concept, and by using it we can differentiate our business from other businesses,” said Jasman Marks, co-founder of the construction company JC Marks Enterprises. “We can add value for our customers.”

Collaboration across many fields typifies much green infrastructure work, which in turn generates new thinking about design, techniques, even how various materials and resources are used.

“The timing is right because now we have global recognition of climate change,” said Christina Couvillion-Do, CEO and owner of Quality First Marine, a maritime contractor. “There is such a need for more engagement, more problem-solving.”

This in turn leads to innovation, a vital incubator of entrepreneurism. Both the public and private sectors are funding more green infrastructure. There is also now a strong nonprofit support structure for aspiring water entrepreneurs.

“With the emphasis on resilience in federal, state and local infrastructure projects — and the requirement for private development to practice stormwater management — local organizations such as Propeller, Thrive New Orleans, and many others started training business owners and workers in these new techniques,” noted Andrea Chen, executive director of Propeller. “As a result, many businesses were able to learn new technologies to take advantage of opportunities in green infrastructure.”

Some of these same factors help explain why women are such leaders within the sector.

“As an emergent industry, it’s not impacted by limiting historical factors,” said Jessica Dandridge, executive director of the Water Collaborative, which serves as a convener and connector in the field. “It’s intersectional in nature, which is a strong suit for many women.”

“There’s a lot of stewardship involved, a lot of community engagement, the need to work together in collaboration,” added Hall, “so a lot of women gravitate towards the work.”

“This sector enables women to have families and be able to do this work,”added Dandridge.

What aspects of water sector entrepreneurism might translate to other fields?

“The support infrastructure that has been built — from workforce training, procurement advocacy, small business training and support, policy advocacy, and dedicated capital providers — could be replicated to support entrepreneurism in other sectors,” suggested Chen.

“Other sectors need to create spaces for innovation,” said Dandridge. “They can create competitions like we have in the water sector, to encourage and reward innovation. This can lead to greater acceptance and institutionalizing of innovation.”

Dandridge also noted that “there is an emphasis in this sector on continuing education, and other sectors could learn from that. It allows people to think more broadly about the work they are doing. There is so much to be gained by learning more.”

“Always look at how you can add value to what you are already doing,” recommended Marks.

Finally, Lisa Abballe, co-founder of Mastodonte, pointed out that “there’s this component of mission-driven businesses, because of the environmental factor. Maybe that sets an example for businesses in other fields. People want to see work that is meaningful.”

All involved agree that other sectors could benefit from water sector practices.
“Everything should be like water.” said Dandridge. “Be flexible. Take the turns and twists to meet the needs.”