Wissam Akra’s Trailblazing Journey in Transforming the Construction Industry
It’s a strange, wonderful, and sometimes scary time for industries that are impacted by the adoption of AI into their day-to-day work. Construction is no different. The possibilities are endless and the unpredictability of innovation leaves practitioners at every level wondering if new developments will improve their work or leave them looking for a new job
Wissam Akra found a solution where everyone wins. Thanks to his extensive industry experience as a Licensed Professional Engineer at WSP and later as a Design Build Manager at Dragados, he recognized the significance of a diverse subcontractor base in achieving successful outcomes. Yet, throughout Wissam’s professional journey, he kept coming across the same dilemma: How could he efficiently and accurately identify the right diverse firms to work on his construction projects?
Fully aware that existing solutions were inadequate, Wissam decided to draw upon his academic achievements — a Master’s in Construction Management and an MBA from Columbia University — to forge a new path. He set out to devise a solution that would revolutionize the way the construction industry identifies and engages with diverse subcontractors.
This relentless drive to create a more inclusive landscape led Wissam to utilize his practical experience and theoretical knowledge to found Tough Leaf, a mission-driven platform that uses artificial intelligence to connect general contractors and developers with qualified business enterprises owned by underrepresented members of the construction industry. The Tough Leaf approach can best be described as AI-Powered Consulting: the high-quality results of consulting, enhanced by the speed and efficiency of technology. The result is a comprehensive list of matched firms in about two weeks, saving Tough Leaf clients an average of 400 hours per project.
Tough Leaf empowers diverse firms through its program, which is both free of charge and easy to join. The process is simple: Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MWDBE) firms claim their profile and showcase their capabilities and certifications. The team then supports these firms through educational programs, access to capacity-building services, and the promise of being considered for relevant, targeted opportunities. This active participation from subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers plays a crucial role in enabling Tough Leaf’s machine-learning component to identify the right subcontractors for the job.
As the CEO of Tough Leaf, Wissam’s strategic vision and dedication have been pivotal in the company’s growth and success. Now in its third year, Tough Leaf has awarded over $180M in projects to diverse firms and maintains around $400M in its pipeline, which includes top-tier firms like JRM, Consigli Construction, and Windover Construction. MWDBE firms receive free coaching to make them more competitive in their bids, and clients are able to expand access to a wider range of opportunities without overwhelming their staff. It is a rare win-win for everyone involved.
What motivated you to launch your startup?
I’ve dedicated my life to the construction industry. During my career, I’ve encountered so many inspirational moments of people from all walks of life coming together on projects with awe-inspiring outcomes. There is so much potential for anyone willing to put in the work — whether you’re an immigrant, a woman, a person of color, a veteran, or someone who has a disability. I’ve also witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by diverse businesses and other underserved groups. Not only did I recognize the need to level the playing field and provide equal opportunities for all, but as an immigrant myself, I was also driven by a personal desire to ensure that diverse firms have a seat at the table.
Finding the right diverse firms is a daunting task. It became apparent that there was no efficient tool to connect with these businesses based on specific project needs. This realization became the genesis behind Tough Leaf — a mission-driven platform designed to break barriers and foster a more equitable construction ecosystem. Our platform aims to simplify the process of hiring diverse firms, fostering inclusivity, and meeting mandated participation requirements seamlessly.
My vision for Tough Leaf was rooted in the belief that true progress in the industry could only be achieved through fostering inclusivity and empowering businesses that were frequently overlooked. By providing a seamless platform that connects general contractors and developers with diverse enterprises, we could revolutionize the way projects are executed while empowering diverse businesses to thrive.
My motivation grew even stronger once I witnessed Tough Leaf’s early successes and recognized the tangible difference it made in the lives of diverse entrepreneurs. Knowing that our platform brings about meaningful change and provides countless opportunities for underrepresented businesses drives me to work tirelessly and push the boundaries of what’s possible.
What is it that excites you about what you’re building?
What excites me the most about what we’re building at Tough Leaf is the potential for transformative impact. Every day, I wake up with a sense of purpose, knowing that we are making a real difference in the construction industry.
The positive feedback we receive from the diverse firms we’ve helped, as well as from our partners and stakeholders, is incredibly gratifying. Witnessing their success stories and the tangible difference Tough Leaf is making in their lives fuels our determination to push boundaries and continue innovating.
Moreover, the journey of building Tough Leaf has been one of constant learning and growth. As an entrepreneur, I am thrilled by the challenges and the opportunity to find creative solutions. I’ve selected a team of like-minded professionals who share the same passion and drive for creating positive change. Together, we are on an exciting path to revolutionizing how projects are executed and contributing to a more equitable and thriving construction industry.
I am excited about the endless possibilities ahead of us. We are continuously evolving and expanding our offerings to better serve the needs of the Tough Leaf community — the diverse firms, our business partners, and, of course, our clients. The potential for further impact and the chance to be at the forefront of shaping a more inclusive future for the industry is truly exhilarating.
What has been your biggest challenge when growing your startup?
One of the most significant challenges we faced was gaining traction and establishing our presence in the market. The construction industry is traditionally conservative. Establishing a presence and building trust with potential clients and partners has been an uphill battle that demanded persistent effort and effective communication.
Moreover, navigating the complexities of compliance and regulation, especially concerning the participation requirements of diverse businesses, presented ongoing hurdles. We had to devote incredible attention to detail and adapt to evolving regulations in order to make sure we provided a seamless and compliant experience for all stakeholders.
Despite these challenges, the Tough Leaf team remained resilient and committed to our mission. We’ve learned how to innovate and overcome obstacles by building strong relationships, leveraging the expertise of our team, and actively seeking feedback from our users.
What are your future plans for your startup?
Right now we’re focused on scaling and expanding our platform to drive significant impact in the construction industry. We have a clear roadmap to achieve our goals:
Establish a Nationwide Presence
I’ve spoken to people all over the country and the feedback is consistent. Tough Leaf provides a service that they desperately need. Plus, connecting diverse businesses with general contractors and developers across various states in the United States will allow us to create more opportunities for underrepresented companies and foster inclusivity on a broader scale.
Always Be Innovating
We constantly explore ways to utilize cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance our matching algorithms and streamline the process of connecting diverse firms with project opportunities.
Find the Right Partners
This plays a crucial role in our expansion strategy. Collaborating with government agencies, corporations, and industry organizations will not only extend our reach but also help us gain valuable insights and expertise to drive meaningful change.
Data-Driven Decision Making
IContinuous impact assessment is a priority for us. We want to track and measure the success stories of diverse businesses on our platform, understand the impact we are making, and continually refine our approach based on the insights we gather.
I Lead by Learning
ILastly, community engagement is fundamental to our growth strategy. Engaging with our community of diverse businesses, contractors, developers, and industry stakeholders will be pivotal in understanding their needs, gathering feedback, and incorporating their input to improve our platform and services.
If you had to share, “words of wisdom,” with a Founder who’s about to start their own startup, what would they be?
Starting your own startup is an exhilarating and transformative journey. Here are some words of wisdom based on my experiences:
The startup path is filled with challenges, and you’ll encounter setbacks along the way. Maintaining a strong belief in your vision will help you overcome obstacles and keep moving forward.
Solve a Real Problem
Understand the pain points of your target audience and offer a solution that truly adds value. A deep understanding of stakeholder needs will be the foundation of your startup’s success.
Be Ravenous for Feedback
Don’t be afraid to reach out to mentors, advisors, and potential customers for insights. Constructive feedback is invaluable for refining your product and strategy.
Build a Strong Team
Surround yourself with talented and passionate individuals who share your vision. A cohesive and dedicated team is crucial for turning your startup into a reality.
Prioritize Customer Experience
Put customer experience at the forefront. Delight your customers with exceptional service and experiences. Building a loyal customer base will be vital for your startup’s growth.
The startup landscape is dynamic, and you may need to pivot your strategy along the way. Be open to change and willing to adjust your approach.
Never Stop Learning
Embrace a growth mindset and continually seek knowledge. Learning from both successes and failures will fuel your growth as a founder.
Celebrate Milestones — Even the Small Ones
Recognizing and celebrating achievements create a positive environment for you and your team.
Time management is critical
Prioritize tasks and focus on activities that have the most significant impact on your startup’s progress.
Trust Your Instincts
While seeking advice is essential, trust your gut feeling. Your passion and vision led you to start this journey, and your intuition can guide your decisions.
Launching a startup is an adventure, and it will require dedication, passion, and perseverance. Believe in the impact you can have, and with determination, you can shape your own success story. How can our readers follow you on social media?
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