Sunday, June 23, 2024

Letitia Hanke: Black Woman Entrepreneur Continues to ‘Raise the Roof’ in White Male-dominated Industry

Letitia Hanke ARS Roofing
Letitia Hanke ARS Roofing

*Letitia Hanke has been on an entrepreneurial mission that few African American women have experienced in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white males. As founder and CEO of Alternative Roofing Solutions (ARS Roofing), a Santa Rosa, California-based business, Hanke gives steady leadership to her company’s diverse workforce of 24 to provide excellent roofing and gutter services to commercial and residential clients across Sonoma and Marin counties – and beyond.

As an African American woman, Hanke understands the rarity of the air in which she operates her company.

“One percent of roofers in America are women,” Hanke told EURweb’s Lee Bailey in a recent interview.  “But for Black women roofers, we can’t even find a percentage because there are so few across the country.  So you can imagine that I’ve had lots of sexism and racism that has been thrown at me in all these years, but I’m still here.”

Saying that she is “still here” may be an understatement because Hanke, since the inception of her company in 2004, has parlayed her business into one of the premier roofing companies in California.  Two years ago, ARS Roofing was named “Roofing Contractor of the Year.”  Over the years as a cutting-edge entrepreneur in the industry, Hanke has received more than a dozen honors, including “Most Influential Woman of the Year” (2022) from the North Bay Business Journal, “The Spirit of Education Award” (2021) from the National Association of Remodeling Industry, and “Small Business of the Year Award” (2014) from California Governor Gavin Newson.

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Not bad for someone who had childhood dreams of establishing a music and recording career.  Growing up in the small town of Hidden Valley Lake in Northern California’s Lake County, Hanke was one of a handful of Black students to attend a local K thru 12 schools.  She remembers being bullied, spat on, and called the N-word often by white classmates.  While many teachers at the small school of 800 students witnessed the frequent despicable incidents, they chose to look the other way and say nothing.  Nevertheless, the school’s music teacher decided to help the seven-year-old.

“The teacher asked if I wanted to play the trumpet, and she would teach me how to play it,” Hanke said.  “I was desperate for something different at that moment.  It was life-changing for me to learn to play the instrument.  This teacher’s act of kindness had a great impact on me, even to this day.”

Hanke became so good at mastering the trumpet that she was playing in the high school band before she was 10 years old.  And not only did she play the trumpet, but ultimately learned to play the piano and drums.  In essence, music became Hanke’s sanctuary and escape from the cruelty and treatment dished out by white students.

Letitia Hanke (YouTube screenshot)
Letitia Hanke (YouTube screenshot)

After graduating from high school, Hanke attended Sonoma State University, where she studied music and played in local bands.  Yet, according to the then-college student, she stayed broke and needed a job to help make ends meet while in school.

“That’s when I applied for and got a job as a receptionist at a roofing company,” she recalled.  “After four-plus years, I had moved up to office manager before being promoted to the company’s manager.”

At some point, the roofing company owner wanted to retire.  He had been in the business for 25-plus years and was ready to move on.  The owner, always impressed with Hanke’s work ethic and integrity, offered her the opportunity to buy his company.

Letitia Hanke
Letitia Hanke

“I told him I wasn’t a roofer,” Hanke said.  “But he said it would be a great opportunity if I was willing to learn.  I was willing!”

Hanke learned the intricacies of the company and the roofing industry, which led to the then 25-year-old obtaining her roofing contracting license.  And she didn’t learn the roofing business by standing on the ground looking up at others working; she worked on countless roofs, doing the difficult work that all good roofers are expected to do.   When the owner finally retired, Hanke started ARS Roofing and bought the assets of her former bosses’ business.  That was 18 years ago, and as the old saying goes,  “the rest is history.”

Hanke told Bailey that she didn’t really like the roofing business, per se in the beginning but grew to love it, mainly because of the people.

“What I love are the clients,” she said emphatically.  “I love their smiles and love seeing them happy.  I love the feeling that I get when we re-roof a family’s home, and they have this new roof over their heads.   To this day, that’s still a good feeling.”

Letitia Hanke (The LIME Foundation)
Letitia Hanke (The LIME Foundation)

For Hanke, it’s also a good feeling to give back and help empower the community and others.  In 2015, she founded the LIME Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit organization, to help empower the lives of young people and seniors.  The name LIME, explained Hanke, is her son’s name (Emil) spelled backward.

The Foundation, said Hanke, provides educational resources, mentorship, career exploration, and vital skills for the construction trades.  In addition, it offers young people an opportunity to discover music, the performing arts, and cutting-edge technology.  And for seniors, the Foundation has programs and activities that foster healthy living.

“I’m always thinking of others,” Hanke said.  “I didn’t go into this business wanting to be a millionaire. It was more about giving back to others and knowing that I’m in a position to help others.  That’s been my greatest success as an entrepreneur.”

Letitia Hanke
Letitia Hanke

Hanke added.  “There was a school teacher in my early life who came through for me when I needed someone,” the entrepreneur said.  “And that’s the whole purpose of my non-profit;  to help and come to the rescue of other young people.  If I can change the life of at least one person, then I’ve done my job.  I want to pay it forward for the rest of my life.”

Beyond her non-profit organization, Hanke looks for other platforms to help entrepreneurs, especially women and minority small business owners.  She recently was one of three women entrepreneur panelists who appeared on a new Nextdoor webinar series.  Hanke, the lone African American, gave practical tips on how to recession-proof small businesses, stay afloat during the current pandemic, and grow and thrive as small business owners, and more. You can watch the webinar here: nextdoor.com/recessionwebinar

For more information about ARS Roofing, log on to www.arsroofing.com.  To learn more about the LIME Foundation, log on to www.thelimefoundation.org.

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