"Hustle mentality" led Johnson-Williams to open her contracting and woodworking firm

When Trinette Johnson-Williams was seven years old, she built a go-kart inspired by The Little Rascals.

Last week, she transformed her wife’s dining table from four seats to six.

Johnson-Williams is expanding her talents beyond small projects by launching her own contracting firm, TJ Builds. Woman- and Black-owned, TJ Builds produces custom woodwork and provides construction and project management services for commercial and residential projects.

“After completing projects for clients, they would ask if I had my own company,” said Johnson-Williams. "With the support of my wife, I figured ‘Why don’t I just hire myself?’ so I stepped out on my own.”

To reach TJ Builds’ June 2018 opening, Johnson-Williams had to push past concerns about the low number of women and women of color in construction fields. The Memphis chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction only has 15 members, seven of whom are retirees and two of whom are Black, including Johnson-Williams.

While new to entrepreneurship, Williams-Johnson has an extensive history working in project management, woodworking and small-scale construction.

“Memphis teaches you how to develop that hustle mentality,” said Johnson-Williams.

In her early career, she interned with Memphis-based Grinder Haizlip and Restocon Corporation in Houston, Tex. while completing her master’s degree with Drexel University.

While construction is a male-dominated field, Johnson-Williams said she’s not intimidated.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 10 percent of people who worked in construction in 2016 were women, a field with over 10 million people. Acknowledging herself as a “unicorn,” she feels the stares from her male counterparts when walking into a site wearing a hard-hat and tool belt. While working as an inspector for GLE Associates in Nashville, she noticed that the only other women she saw working in the plant were janitorial staff or receptionists.

“I don’t have time to wait on anybody to tell me that I’m good enough,” said Johnson-Williams. “Women can do just as much if not more. Anything that’s out there, we can do it."

In February, Johnson-Williams began the process of launching her own firm, which opened in June at 1369 Heistan Place in Midtown.

“I started by checking out resources readily available like legal services and procurement fairs and workshops,” said Johnson-Williams.

Later this year, she will start a fellowship program with Co.Starters, a program offered by Epicenter where budding entrepreneurs learn the basics of launching and expanding a business. Johnson-Williams said she understands why starting a business can seem daunting for many people.

“I think potential entrepreneurs need help setting a clear path. There are entities and resources out there, but knowing where to start is intimidating," she said.

In her time as an independent contractor, Johnson-Williams has worked with over 20 clients with projects ranging from residential porch swings to home renovation for nonprofits including The Works, Inc. in South Memphis. She’s currently solidifying jobs for at least five clients under her new firm.

Kayla Brooks, a previous client, was more than satisfied with Johnson-Williams work.

“While I was preparing to move into a new home, I knew I wanted a customized closet," said Brooks. "My father did construction but wasn’t interested in the intricacies of designing a closet.

I knew Trinette was capable of the job from photos of other work she’d done. I was especially happy that I had a woman building my closet because I knew she’d pay attention to detail. She was patient and had exemplary customer service.”

In five years, Johnson-Williams plans to be fully staffed with the inclusion of women and people of color filling roles from designer to contractors. Long-term, she hopes TJ Builds will expand and work with private and public clients, becoming a reputable business in the Memphis community.

“I’m satisfied knowing my clients are satisfied," said Johnson-Williams. "I’m in the business of making their dream and visions in their head come to fruition. I don’t just speak construction. I can articulate and define the work for my clients.”

To other aspiring entrepreneurs, Johnson-Williams says an unfailing support system is a driving force in opening a business.

“My wife has sacrificed so much so I could pursue my dream, I wouldn’t be here [without her]," she said. "She’s been pushing me to step out on my own for quite some time. You need enough support that will keep you from quitting on yourself.”

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Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Memphistravel.com. Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty.