While you might say education is in Precision 2000 CEO Guiomar Obregon’s blood, the construction entrepreneur wasn’t born with a silver shovel in her hand.
These days, the Atlanta-based construction firm she runs with her husband and company president, Carlos Sanchez, is showered with accolades, but it wasn’t easy to break into the Atlanta mainstream as a woman- and Hispanic-owned outsider.
“The perception is that you come from another country, you don’t know enough, and that happens at the professional level,” she told Global Atlanta. “The perception is that, ‘Yeah, you’re an engineer, but you’re from Colombia.’”
“The perception is that you come from another country, you don’t know enough.”
Some potential clients assumed that she was an illegal immigrant, or at least prone to hiring undocumented workers, she said.
Ironically, that became a competitive advantage: Competent Colombian engineers flocked to Precision 2000 as they fled violence back home, since she knew how to validate their credentials.
“Sometimes the guerrillas would push them out, or threats of kidnapping, so they would move here, and then they could not find work that was equivalent, so we would give them the opportunity.”
That sparked an idea: Why not be more proactive about building Colombian engineers’ capacity, benefiting her business in the process?
Since 2006, Ms. Obregon has run a year-long internship for two students each year from Colombia. Over the decade, more than 20 students entering their fifth (and final) year of engineering school have worked with Precision 2000 in Atlanta through a hands-on program that earns them cross-cultural awareness, academic credit and a deep-dive into industry best practices. When the year’s up, they return to Colombia to graduate.
The program is so much more than making copies and fetching coffee, says German Zamora, who did one stint as an intern (on a J-1 trainee visa), went back to Colombia to graduate, worked for more than two years there and is now back in Atlanta in an expanded role to help oversee the program.
“For me, I never felt excluded from Precision 2000 activities because I was an intern,” Mr. Zamora said.
And beyond that, there was a cultivated sense of belonging. Interns get gratuitous training they may not even use during their time here, and life outside of work is attractive.
They’re provided with a Buckhead apartment near MARTA, but over the years they’ve learned the ins and outs of getting around a city notorious for its traffic. One of the first groups spent $800 on a car, and now three have been passed down to subsequent cohorts — from the initial Ford Taurus to the current Mitsubishi Lancer. Each July, the two outgoing interns overlap for two weeks with the inbound pair to show them the ropes.
They’ve also struck up a friendship with au pairs from other countries who have come to Atlanta to work in education and childcare. Even those ties are handed down to the newcomers.
“They don’t speak the same language, but we go on trips, we go to Mardi Gras — we go through all this crazy stuff,” Mr. Zamora said.
It’s all part of the cultural experience Mr. Zamora had been yearning for since he saw the first announcement about the program through his school’s career center as an 18-year-old.
“I saw this email, and I was dreaming about it,” he said.
Knowing an internship was out there that would cover a few thousand dollars in visa fees, help him perfect his English, earn a little cash and give him a leg up back home was a powerful motivator. When it came time to apply, Mr. Zamora was ready: Competition for jobs is fierce among Colombia’s well-educated classes.
“Now, you’re behind if you don’t know English, and it’s getting to the point where if you don’t have a master’s, you’re behind,” he said.
But the practical training in cutting-edge processes and technologies was most valuable for him. Colombia’s construction sector is trying to follow the U.S.’s lead in safety, erosion control, use of technology, management techniques and much more. (Argos, a major cement company with U.S. operations in Atlanta and plants across Georgia, is based in Colombia.)
American jobs are more fast-paced, Mr. Zamora noticed, and business is conducted on a more professional than personal basis.
“Over here, it’s like, ‘Let’s get this done, and let’s get this fixed and let’s do it now.’ Here, it’s like you’re always late. Today’s work was for yesterday. It’s always like that, so you’re always in such a hurry. In Colombia, it’s more relaxed.”
But all these lessons put Mr. Zamora in the driver’s seat when he interviewed with a company back home: “The guy said, ‘Man, you are the one.’”
Learning From Her Journey
In many ways, Ms. Obregon is helping interns like Mr. Zamora replicate her own educational journey — without the entrepreneurial bumps and bruises along the way.
Born in Boston while her father was studying at MIT, at six months old she was whisked back to Colombia, where her mother, also a civil engineer, would eventually reach the level of dean at the prestigious National University of Colombia.
Even after studying engineering in Bogota, the capital city, Ms. Obregon’s mother wouldn’t let her settle, always encouraging her to use that coveted American citizenship to get her next degree. She aimed for an American university where she could master English and learn a new culture.
That’s how Ms. Obregon arrived in Atlanta, eventually earning a civil engineering degree from Georgia Tech in 1992, followed up by a master’s of business administration two years later.
The boyfriend she’d met back at the Escuela Colombiana Ingenieria, Mr. Sanchez, wasn’t too far behind. He also came to Tech, studying English first and then eventually earning a Master’s of Science in the Management of Technology (akin to an MBA).
They married (once legally in the U.S. and once in a ceremony for the family’s benefit back in Colombia). Ms. Obregon gained a summer internship that turned into a full-time job doing market research at an Australian-owned brick manufacturer. Then she was laid off.
With her own six-month-old baby at home, it was time to figure out what to do next. Sitting still wasn’t an option.
“I was really bad at staying at home,” she said. She and Mr. Sanchez started their company on paper in 1998, while he was working as an inspector on construction jobs at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. She had gone back to work as a financial analyst.
Their big break came when the Precision 2000’s minority status helped it win a road realignment project at the airport, a contract worth about a half-million dollars. Ms. Obregon said it was thrilling but intimidating: the fledgling firm had to scramble to make it happen.
“We didn’t have the insurance, we didn’t have the bonding — anything,” she said. Nearly 20 years later, the company gradually built its reputation, weathered a dramatic recession and helped fight to get Hispanic-owned companies back into the City of Atlanta’s procurement graces.
For about four years after Mayor Kasim Reed’s term began, Hispanic-owned firms were excluded from the minority participation goal after a study determined they no longer needed the help. Ms. Obregon saw the move as politically motivated.
“We saw the change. If you’re outside, nobody would have noticed. Not only did we see it, but we were affected, so that’s when we complained,” she said.
The Georgia Hispanic Construction Association was founded in 2012 with Ms. Obregon at the helm. It banded with Asian-owned businesses losing work because primary contractors no longer had to allocate a percentage of the work to Hispanic- or Asian-owned firms. In 2015, as the city undertook the Welcoming Atlanta initiative, the policy changed again. That same year, Ms. Obregon stepped down as head of the GHCA.
The company has won many awards, including the Latin American Association’s 2017 Inspiration Award, and it’s one of the top 500 Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States.
Ms. Obregon credits the company’s commitment to innovation and quality in part to the immigrant experience, though she’s adamant that too often, Hispanic-owned firms and professionals aren’t considered fully “American,” despite their enormous contributions to building up the city.
“You see things thorough another lens,” she says. “I think we’re more resourceful, we do things differently, we think outside the box because we have that thinking.”
As for immigration rhetoric, she hopes that ultimately companies’ need for workers in a variety of sectors will overcome impediments to reform.