Meet Our CEO
North Bay Spirit Award Winner
Letitia Hanke has a lot of stories to tell. Some bring a broad smile to her face or end in an eruption of laughter that may include a happy squeal.
But she doesn’t hold back on the stories that are painful to share, even if she has to pause in the middle when memories cause her throat to tighten.
As a female CEO of her own roofing company, Hanke is prepared for those who might underestimate her because of her gender in the overwhelmingly male-dominated building trades. She’s developed a strong sense of self worth and a thick skin over some 20 years in the business. But as an African American, she’s found that racism has sometimes proven to be an even darker and trickier force to deal with.
There was the couple with whom she had a friendly rapport over the phone and were enthusiastic about moving forward with a roofing job. But when she showed up at their Skyhawk home in Santa Rosa with samples and a contract, she got an icy reception.
The man, who was warm and jovial over on the phone, refused her handshake. The couple said they had decided against replacing their roof and within five minutes, showed her the door. All the warmth expressed in the phone call turned cold. As she exited the man cautioned, “I just want you to know we have an alarm system on our house and if anyone tries to break in, it’s going to go off really loud.”
“I got in my car, pulled around the corner and bawled my eyes out,” Hanke said. The experience triggered old hurts. As two of the few Black students at their school in Middletown, Hanke and her brother Aaron were the targets of persistent racial bullying growing up.
After that meeting in Skyhawk, she pulled herself together, went back to her office, shredded the contract and made a vow that would change her life and the lives of scores of young people struggling with low self esteem and finding a place in the world. Going forward she would use her photo and full name on all her marketing so people would know exactly who they were dealing with. She had no time for racists.
After she rebranded her company, ARS Roofing, as an African American female-owned business, she found it not only didn’t suffer but prospered, growing from a $2 million company to one with $3.5 million in annual sales.
It wasn’t just the name change, she said, but the change within herself.
“I just started being everywhere. I would do speaking engagements. I said ’I’m not hiding anymore like I was doing in my younger days.’ It’s the best possible thing I could do for myself, and I’m not letting anyone take that away from me ever again.”
The additional income and the transformation that came from her decision to publicly claim who she is led Hanke to create The LIME Foundation. The five-year-old nonprofit offers enrichment programs that serve the disadvantaged in the community across different age groups. She diverts up to 5% of each roofing job to the foundation, which also is supported by small donations and grants.
Her NextGen Trades Academy prepares high school students and young adults for whom college isn’t a fit to enter well-paid jobs in the construction trades. The program focuses on the skills to get a job and partners with contractors in the community to hire the graduates and train them on the job.
Her Turner Arts Initiative (Turner is her maiden name) brings structured activities to disadvantaged youth, giving them the chance to learn technology or play a musical instrument as an alternative to substance abuse, teen pregnancy, truancy, loneliness, obesity, bullying, depression and exclusion. The program aims to offer the kind of enrichment that builds inclusion and self esteem, she said, at time when funding for arts in pubic education is diminishing.
She also sponsors a Senior Activities Program, which promotes healthy eating and exercise for older adults as an antidote to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
“Leticia has a heart as big as all outdoors,” said Jason Krist, an electrical contractor who participates in her trade academy as a speaker and has hired some of its graduates. “She had a lot of challenges growing up. But she brings her own fierce desire to be someone to other kids. I’ve never seen her waver at all. She wants to be a force for good. It sounds kind of corny, but it inspires that feeling in others of us and it’s what those kids need.”
For her enthusiastic and persistent efforts to empower youth, particularly those struggling with poverty, low self esteem and often minimal family support, Hanke has been selected as June’s North Bay Spirit Award winner.
A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award calls out individuals who go all-in for a cause, often with an organization they created or built themselves that fills an important community need and serves others.
Teaching life skills
“As a Sonoma County Office of Education Board trustee, I’ve never been more impressed with a local grassroots changemaker in education. It all started from scratch, which is an enormous feat for any educational initiative,” said Andrew Leonard, who nominated Hanke for the award. Leonard served on the LIME Foundation board and now leads its community programs.
“Letitia is accomplishing her dream of providing stable careers to young people while simultaneously bolstering a desperately understaffed construction workforce,” he added.
In the three years since NextGen launched, 94 youth ages 16 to 24 have graduated from the 10-week after-school program; 72% have landed jobs in the field, many making $17 to $23 an hour.
“A lot of our students were working at McDonald’s, Panda Express and Target – a lot of minimum wage jobs,” said Hanke, 44.
They are now being directed into more than a job, she said. They’re headed for careers.
“The class is more than construction. We’re teaching them life skills, like financial literacy,” Hanke said. “We’re showing them how to interview properly and we practice a lot of team-building skills.”
Professionals representing different trades talk to the class about their aspects of the business and what to expect on the job, which helps students decide which might be the best fit.
Not all kids are cut out for college. But the lack of vocational education and the emphasis on college as the ideal goal has left a lot of young people with different talents and interests feeling like the have no options.
“They have no idea that when they get out of high school, they could already be making 40 or 50 grand in a career where, after a few years and training, they can start their own companies,” Hanke said. “A lot of these students are amazing. They’re great with their hands. They’re very meticulous. They don’t know they could put that toward being an electrician.”
Marcus Hernandez took the NextGen program several years ago at Rancho Cotati High School. Now 20, he’s a carpenter with C&J Property Services making a good living.
He said he took wood shop in school, which taught him how to use tools but not how to get a job.
“A lot of kids in construction get their jobs from their dad or someone in their family. I had no one in my family to get me a job,” he said.
One important component of the program is the job assistance at the end. Hanke taps into her network of supportive contractors willing to give her students a chance. She tries to connect the right kid with the right contractor, depending on personality and work style.
The academy also is filling a critical need for skilled tradesmen, Nicole Humber said. At 31, she also is a woman heading her own company, Bravo Restoration and Construction in Windsor. She said it sometimes takes months to fill a position.
Humber, one of the contractors in Hanke’s support network, said she’s teaching young people that “there is fulfillment in blue collar work.”
Turning pain into music
Hanke shares her own stories so she can serve as a role model to help young people see they don’t have to internalize the taunts from others like she did as a child.
She moved to Lake County from the East Bay when her father, a Pentecostal minister, inherited country property in Hidden Valley Lake. She was 5. She said she could count on two hands the number of Black students at her school.
“There were kids who had never seen a Black person. I’ve been called every name for a Black person you can think of. I was physically abused and mentally abused for many years.”
Neither the teachers or the yard duty workers would intervene.
“They would see kids spitting on me or punching me in the stomach or chasing after me to steal my lunch or pull my hair. The yard duties would turn their heads.”
It was her third grade teacher who rescued her through music. Recognizing a spark of talent, she taught Letitia to play the trumpet and by age 9 the precocious musician was playing in the high school band.
Hanke found friends and acceptance in the band, and with that, a sense of self esteem and belonging.
“It was a huge turning point,” she said. “I’ve never had a suicidal thought. I never turned to drugs or alcohol. My teacher did that for me. Instead I channeled that anger and pain into music. That’s why Turner Arts is specifically made for kids who are going through the same tribulations. I’m trying to do that for other young people who are struggling and in pain.“
The LIME Foundation’s music program is still developing. The vision is to provide creative outlets in after-school and summer programs for kids, although this summer’s program has been hindered by the coronavirus. Every year the foundation has presented an educational scholarship at LIME’s Believe in a Dream fundraiser to a worthy youth who is persisting against difficult odds, like a 13-year-old boy who was bullied and a young woman whose sister died a drug addict and wrote searingly about the experience, Hanke said.
Hanke knows the crushing cost of putting yourself through college. While studying music at Sonoma State, she juggled two jobs and music gigs on the weekend. At 21 she was hired to do office work at a roofing company, quickly mastering the business. When the owner decided to retire, she bought the assets, but only after going out in the field and learning how to install a roof herself so she could qualify for her contractor’s license.
She was turned down repeatedly for funding. One banker even laughed at her. Then the late Ann Bouligny, founder of the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce, took her under her wing, marched her into Summit State Bank and said “You’ve got to give this woman money.” They did, and Hanke at 28 launched her own roofing business in 2004.
She’s emerged as a community leader, serving for years as president of the Black Chamber and sponsor of events like the annual Juneteenth commemoration.
Hanke said she feels compelled to help others as she was helped so many times. She frequently mentions that the racial bullying she experienced fueled her drive to succeed, prove the naysayers wrong and give a leg up to other kids.
While NextGen is open to all, two-thirds are non-white. Most have some personal hurdles to overcome.
Kerry Smith, 24, a biracial woman who is a graduate of NextGen and was persuaded to study engineering at the coaxing of Hanke, said the older woman is like a mom to her.
“I don’t want to put her on a pedestal but she really has saved me multiple times and continues to do so. She’s like an angel to me,” Smith said, relating how Hanke has a way of appearing with help or support just at the right moment.
The world is taking notice. In February Hanke got a surprise visit from Mike Rowe, who travels the country singling out “remarkable people making a difference in their communities” to feature on his popular Facebook Watch show “Returning the Favor.” Hanke was showered with gifts for herself and her students although details are hush-hush until the show streams, likely in September.
Hanke worries about her own son Emil, whose name spelled backward inspired her foundation. At 17 he’s good kid and new high school grad, but she knows as a Black youth he faces dangers because of his race. She’s had to address that with him.
The Black Lives matter demonstrations ignited by the police killing of George Floyd have stirred up many emotions and tears over the past month. But because she has an autoimmune condition and her parents have health issues, Hanke stays off the streets. Instead she opts to educate, posting on Facebook history lessons about great African Americans and doing her grassroots work helping to change the course of young lives.
“I think about it all the time, and it just gives me chills. Sometimes you’ve just got to take the chance. When my boss came to me and said, Hey, would you like to buy my roofing company’ I could have said, ’No. I want to be a rock star.’ But I had this opportunity. So I always tell the kids that whatever path you think you’re on, things could change. You never know what’s in store for you. I’m grateful every day.”
Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter@megmcconahey.
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