Amy Gonzales, a geologist and wetlands scientist, played mentor to Kelly Caldwell, a biologist, at their former employer, for which they did environmental-impact studies of proposed gas pipelines and other energy projects. When Gonzales grew frustrated with her bosses, Caldwell, who was 17 years her junior, suggested they start their own company. The result is AK Environmental, which performs environmental surveys and manages construction projects nationwide. The women run their company virtually—Gonzales lives in New Jersey; Caldwell, in North Carolina.
Kelly Caldwell: I think people thought we were nuts to quit our jobs and start our own business. I think they also said, "Is Amy crazy to trust this kid?" I was just 26 at the time. She was the one with all the experience.
Amy Gonzales: I didn't even think about her age. If people can do their job, it doesn't matter how old they are.
KC: People would always tell me that it was strange that Amy and I never worked in the same place. But we never did. She mentored me, but I was in New Jersey, and she was in Pennsylvania. I call her 10 times a day and e-mail constantly. Communication has never been an issue between us.
AG: I own 60 percent of the business, and Kelly owns 40 percent. In the beginning, we both worked from our homes. In 2004, we hired my husband, Ed, who is an engineer. That's when I moved my office out of the house, because we couldn't work together very well.
KC: Around that same time, I had my first daughter and stopped doing fieldwork. We were doing other hiring as well, and as we started to grow—from six employees to 11 and then to 40—it became increasingly important for me to focus on the business side of things anyway, like payroll, invoicing, and insurance. When I had my second daughter a few years later, I did payroll in my hospital room as the nurses went in and out.
AG: I focus on the technical and marketing aspects of the business, and Kelly does an amazing job focusing on issues like banks and payroll. There isn't a lot of overlap.
KC: I admit that I miss doing the fieldwork from time to time. But this role was what I needed to do. Now, I don't think I could trust anyone else to do this.
AG: I've had employees ask me why they have to carry a business card around that says our company is a woman-owned enterprise. And I tell them, "Because it is." We work in a male-dominated industry, and we're proud of how quickly we can turn projects around and cut through the red tape. And, while we are serious about our business, we like to be lighthearted, too. Sometimes when we're in meetings with clients, it's like they have never heard anyone laugh before.
KC: The funny thing is that Amy and Ed are very well known in the industry. I have had employees or customers ask if I'm Ed's daughter. I even had an employee tell me he didn't know I was one of the owners. It makes me laugh to think about it. Ed actually reports to me, but mostly just for technical reasons. The three of us work well together.
AG: Kelly makes a real effort to visit the staff out in the field, so she sees more of them than I do. We have done work in 20 states, so we have staff all over the place. We encourage everyone to call and talk to us. We also try to do marketing things together so that our clients can see the face of AK. They always seem excited when they figure out that, Oh, AK comes from Amy and Kelly.
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.