CHICAGO - While her friends were studying economic theory in college, Lisa Pineiro was busy raising her daughter and launching her own construction business. Now the 35-year-old trailblazer is empowering other young women to become successful entrepreneurs.

We're raising our children to believe they have to go to college if they want to amount to anything, said Pineiro, whose daughter is now 14. There are actually more self-made millionaires in the construction industry than any other industry.

As a single mom in her early 20s with a high school diploma and no training in the skilled trades, she built an electrical training and recruiting firm from the ground up on the heels of a divorce, using a $45,000 loan from her parents.

Her inspiration? The shoddy treatment Pineiro saw contract electricians receive at the hands of a rival construction-staffing firm where she briefly worked, coupled with an innate sense that she could provide higher-quality service and more stability for employees. She had already flexed her entrepreneurial muscle, having run a beauty salon on a military base in Germany where her ex-husband was stationed.

It started getting on my nerves, offending me that these men and women were grossly underrepresented, said Pineiro, the president of Durham, North Carolina-based Technical Services Inc. (TSI). So in 1998, with the help of a book, she wrote a business plan, struck out on her own, and in just 18 months found herself running a small company that was grossing more than $5 million in yearly revenue. Pineiro attributed her success in large part to a then-thriving construction industry growing in excess of 30 percent a year.

There was a huge need for skilled trade, said Pineiro, who was recently named North Carolina's Small Business Person of the Year, an honor that included introducing President Obama at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. People were spending money and building left and right.


Then came some near-fatal curve balls for the business. A former minority partner in TSI bilked every last penny out of the company, Pineiro said. She declined to offer details, other than to disclose that she helped to get a conviction that sent him packing.

I ended up putting him in prison for fraud, embezzlement and obtaining property under false pretenses, she said, later adding: I've made my share of huge mistakes.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Pineiro again saw her mettle tested as the construction industry was dealt the first of several sharp blows in recent years. Rather than abandon ship, she moved out of her office space, downsized her staff and diversified, opening an Edy's ice cream parlor to help make ends meet.

For two years, with her young daughter frequently in tow, Pineiro scooped desserts, decorated cakes and managed to keep TSI alive, operating the staffing business part time out of a storeroom in the back, where she often conducted interviews and tested electricians on their skills. She eventually opened a second ice cream shop.

Anybody can make it during the good times, said Pineiro, who has won numerous awards for entrepreneurship. I would give myself credit for being able to shoot at a moving target during the tough times.

When the current recession hit, Pineiro reapplied the diversification lesson to TSI on a larger scale. She acquired a business that does electrical work for national and international tech and pharmaceutical companies in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, incorporating as RTP Electrical Services LLC. Its former owner now works for her.

She's small and tiny but she's a go-getter, said Joyce Reynolds Siler, director of the Women's Business Center of North Carolina, where Pineiro holds seminars on topics such as communicating between genders. She is just getting ahead by leaps and bounds.

RTP has developed expertise in electrical installations for critical environments such as data centers and hospitals, businesses that continue to grow despite the downturn in the commercial construction sector.

They cannot afford to lose power for one second, Pineiro said of the highly-specialized sector. It's do or die.

While TSI's business this year is down sharply from the peaks of the late 90s, Pineiro said it remains in the black. Meanwhile, RTP is helping to make up the difference, on track to exceed its first-year goals. The combined companies employ more than 60 full-time employees, including Pineiro's husband and former client, Frank Pineiro, who is vice president of TSI. Pineiro also hired her father, Tony, as her CFO and her father-in-law, Frank Pineiro, Sr., as her company's senior safety officer.


There are also long-time employees like Chris Coble, an electrician who now oversees many of RTP's jobs.

You find somebody that pays you decent money, listens to you when you got concerns, rectifies things when got a bad situation, you stay with them, Coble said. She cares.

Preparing electricians to work in such specialized environments requires extensive training, and Pineiro has made educating the workforce a priority. In 2005, TSI was approved as an apprenticeship site by the U.S. Department of Labor. Today the company's 5,000-square-foot facility includes classroom space and a shop area for hands-on training. Pineiro herself is constantly taking classes and even admitted she is considering pursuing an MBA.

The school systems aren't teaching trades anymore, said Pineiro, who in addition to working and raising her four children, still finds the time to do some vocational outreach at high schools, rehabilitation centers and other venues where she has a chance to promote the virtues of skilled trades. In 2008 she launched WOmen @ Work, a nonprofit that encourages young women to get involved in traditionally male-dominated construction careers.

I've seen a lot of changes in the last decade, Pineiro said. While there are still challenges for women in a number of different careers, I'm watching the glass ceiling being cracked every day. I expect our next generation of women leaders will shatter it.