This year, the Velez Organization is proud to announce its nomination for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. For the past 31 years, the accounting firm praises leaders shaking up the business world with big ideas to shape the future. President and Chief Contract Administrator Elizabeth Velez was delighted that after the company’s 45 years of dominating the NYC construction industry, the company is still considered to be blazing trails.
“You can be entrepreneurial in your spirit, what you do, and where you take your company,” she explained, ”how you use your company to create change and create good.”
The Velez Organization was started in 1972 by Velez’s father, Andrew Velez. He settled in New York City at age eight after immigrating from Puerto Rico with his family. In what can only be described as the plot of romance novel, he eventually fell in love with an aspiring ballerina from Ohio named Lois.
“My grandparents, to protect [my mother] from New Yorkers, put her in a convent to live during the summers,” said Velez with a laugh, “but that didn’t stop her from meeting my father when he was working in a deli in the area.”
After getting married at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia University, the couple quickly transitioned to family life.
She’s fourth in the line-up of seven girls. After a friend recommended him to the Carpenter’s Union in the 1960s, her father Andrew worked in construction until a badly broken ankle on the job inspired him to start his own firm. Velez distinctly remembers her parents invoicing and writing up proposals long into the night.
“Because he was so tenacious, and such a hard worker, he rose up the ranks very quickly, and was Contractor of the Year for five years running until they instituted a graduation program,” she explained.
Gesturing to a plaque mounted on the wall of her father’s old office, Velez clarified the motto that truly informed her his career: “It will come to he who hustles.”
“As a young girl, if I wanted to spend time with my father, I had to go to work with him,” she said.
Yet, she was adamant that family always came first to her father, and still does.
“We had this 1970s red van, and he painted all of his daughters’ names on it,” she said with a smile.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree in business at Hofstra University, Velez worked part-time for her father.
“I always liked it, but I never saw myself, necessarily, in the industry,” she said.
Yet, when her proposal for an affordable housing development in the Bronx was accepted, her father begged her to stay and finish the project. Working with the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization that works with government and business leaders to strengthen the city’s education, infrastructure, and economy, Velez organized the construction of approximately 600 units.
“It was an amazing feeling to be able to put your DNA on a project,” she explained.
After that project, she never looked back.
“Once I got into it, it was a milestone moment for me,” Velez stated.
Although pained to pick a favorite project from her over 30-year career, Velez choose the construction of the Bronx campus of Boricua College as her favorite “child.”
“It’s a beautiful glass building, and for the college, it represented this tremendous growth. It represented a commitment to the amazing borough of the Bronx,” she explained.
Boricua College is composed predominantly of female students, 80 percent of which are Latina.
“The vast majority are moms coming back to do formal education,” explained Velez.
As a trustee of the college, she was also excited to see the opening of a charter school in the building for the kids of those moms. A strong supporter of education, Velez hopes the experience of going to school with their moms “instills in them the seeds to keep going on.” She also serves on advisory boards at Mercy College and Hostos Community College, a CUNY school.
“I believe education is such an empowering thing, and we can change communities by educating our youth,” she explained.
Additionally, Velez advises two programs, YouthBridge-NY and ACE, that each combine her passions for diversity, education, and construction. YouthBridge-NY is a program that helps youths of different backgrounds communicate with each other, while the ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Mentoring Program introduces high schoolers to the construction industry through mentorship with member firms.
“We have a real diversity in the kids that come in. About 50% are females, which is terrific!” said Ms. Velez.
She also advocates for gender and racial diversity in the construction industry through her membership to the Women Builders Council.
“I still feel like an anomaly, which is tough after being in the industry for almost thirty years,” she confessed.
Yet, Velez is firm believer that more women can and should be involved in the construction industry, especially if they empower each other.
“Very early on, I met very strong women that wanted to help and mentor other women,” she said.
While she stated her father was “one of her biggest cheerleaders,” Velez also mentioned Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, as one of her mentors and idols. They first met when the Velez Organization partnered with the non-profit to build the affordable housing development in the Bronx while Ms. Velez was still in college.
Today, she believes there is a tremendous pressure on women to be successful, yet maintain a perfect work-life balance. Velez said that freeing yourself from this paradox is one of the greatest favors women can do for themselves.
“It was important to me to keep in touch with all the aspects that made my heart beat, and so, not everything is at a balance. I almost think it’s more like pendulum,” she said, “Life swings in one way or another.