Julia Stasch Raises The Roof For Feminism

Ask a group of developers what concerns them most about the real estate industry, and the answers will likely include two things: occupancy rates (too low) and debt levels (too high). Julia M. Stasch frets about such things as well. But the president of Chicago's growing Stein & Co. has a much broader agenda.

Besides being one of the top-ranking woman builders in the nation, Stasch, 46, is an ardent feminist. She insists that women should be given the same chance as men to succeed or fail on the job. That's hardly a radical idea in most industries. But in the construction trades, where women make up only 2% of the work force, Stasch is a revolutionary.

And it isn't just rhetoric. Stein & Co., which has completed $775 million worth of projects since 1990, demands that contractors meet stiff affirmative-action goals. The result: Stein jobs employ about three times as many women as the industry average.

When putting up Chicago's new Metcalfe Federal Building, for instance, Stasch made sure women worked 54,000 hours, or roughly 7% of the total. At the towering USG Building nearby, 75 women, or roughly 6% of the work force, collected $1 million in wages. "She does it because she believes it's fair and moral and right," explains Chairman Richard Stein. "It's also good business."

REBEL'S CAUSES. Indeed, Stasch's affirmative-action agenda has helped Stein & Co. bag some of Chicago's most lucrative projects. Stein will be the project manager for Chicago's new $750 million light-rail system, and it will build the $675 million expansion of the city's McCormick Place convention center. "We looked at what the developers had actually done--vs. what they were promising to do," explains Carmen P. Caldero, an official at the joint city-state agency that awarded the McCormick contract. "Stein & Co. developed the model that others are emulating. That was critical."

Stasch has always been something of a rebel. Although she grew up in the conservative Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, she headed in 1964 for Ohio's liberal Antioch College, drawn by its innovative work-study program. She dropped out in 1965 to spend a year as a VISTA volunteer on the Papago Indian reservation in Arizona. The tribe had hoped for an expert who could help upgrade its cattle herd but instead got a diminutive 18-year-old city girl. Stasch ended up helping create a tutoring program for high school dropouts who wanted to get their equivalency degrees.

After her VISTA stint, Stasch headed for San Francisco, arriving just before the fabled "summer of love." She took a job at a stock brokerage but lived a communal life at home, hanging around Golden Gate Park and going to Jefferson Airplane concerts. Eventually, she drifted back to Chicago, where she struggled through night school at Loyola University while working a day job. "That's why it took me 10 years to get through college," she jokes.

HANDS ON. She graduated summa cum laude in American history and began teaching high school on Chicago's South Side. One day, she bumped into acquaintance Richard Stein on the street and learned that he was looking for a secretary. She was tired of her long commute from one side of Chicago to the other and was lured by the possibility of a $5,000 raise from her teacher's salary of $13,000 a year. So she joined Stein's four-person real estate firm in 1976.

Stasch was not a traditional secretary. Almost at once, she began reviewing construction-loan applications and inspecting work in progress. With Stein handling finance and Stasch the day-to-day operations, the privately held company rose with Chicago's 1980s building boom. Stasch became executive vice-president in 1988 and received an equity stake. She became president in 1990.

Stein & Co. has been something of a hybrid, developing its own projects and managing construction of others. Its recent focus on mangaging public-sector jobs, though, has helped it avoid many of the woes that have plagued the industry. That lets Stasch make time for other pursuits. She has testified before Congress about the dearth of women in the industry and is also board president of the Chicago Women's Business Development Center, a group that helps women start businesses. She also co-founded the Women's Issues Network (WIN), a group of 220 Windy City businesswomen.

WIN's biggest focus recently is a $200,000 effort to raise public support for RU-486, better known as the French abortion pill. "Reproductive choice is central to a woman's economic life," says Stasch, who, with her husband, a professor at Loyola, has chosen not to have any children. "I wouldn't be where I am today if I'd made the decision to have a family." For Stasch and Stein & Co., choice and equal opportunity begin at home.

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