“When I look at communities, I think about all the things we need to change the landscape of a community for the better,” she says.
Developing and cultivating a sense of belonging are in her DNA, driving Alexis’s professional life since she was 24 and purchased her first multi-family home in Springfield Gardens, Queens. Using the State of New York Mortgage Agency’s (SONYMA) first-time homebuyer program, Alexis was able to purchase her first house, but she still faced expensive renovations.
“The working-class neighborhood was more than a new homeowner could ask for, but the house was in extreme disrepair,” she recalls.
Undaunted, Alexis figured out how to “make a way out of no way,” setting her entrepreneurial mind to work on solutions. During this period, New York City Mayor David Dinkins (1990-1993) had championed an initiative for small homeowners to take in homeless families in exchange for a lump sum voucher. Alexis saw an opportunity to receive assistance with costly repairs while also helping families in need of safe, affordable housing.
“I wanted to make a difference for homeless families,” she said. “I interviewed dozens and settled on two. I renovated the house and built a new basement apartment for myself with the voucher funds. Both families stayed with me for more than 12 years. It was truly a win-win.”
Alexis – who prefers to be called by her first name – was born in South Jamaica, Queens, New York, in 1968. She was raised by her mother, stepfather and maternal grandmother during the first several years of her life, two women whose influence is still clear today. Although her mom and stepdad had divorced when she was five, he still provides regular mentorship. While Alexis’s mother worked and attended college, learning the new language of computers, her grandmother took care of her. Alexis’s great grandmother migrated from the South and she and her husband owned several buildings in Harlem, creating work for her family and friends to migrate North.
“I remember being a tiny girl and helping her and my cousins clean each building,” Alexis says. “She was so proud.” Alexis’s grandfather passed at an early age, leaving her grandmother as the sole breadwinner, making ends meet by renting rooms to boarders.
“My grandmother suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia, yet still remained that ‘go-to person’ in our neighborhood for the bare necessities,” Alexis says. “If you needed a place to stay or a meal, you went to her. She was so steadfast and loving, she showered love on me and my cousins every chance she could get.”
Her mother was the “go-to person” when someone was trying to make a positive change in their lives. Whether going to an interview or needing to improve their skill set so they could get a better job, she would help them find the resources and instill a sense of confidence.
“My mother was brilliant and persistent at overcoming challenges,” Alexis says. “She focused on getting whatever resources she needed and working hard and she instilled that into me. She’d tell me, ‘You gotta do better, you gotta be better, you’ve gotta pay it forward.’ She and my grandmother were always helping someone in need, helping people in the community, and they ingrained that in me.”
Alexis also learned how to persevere through her own challenges. Alexis and her mother left New York in 1978, moving across the country for work prior to returning to New York in 1982. As a teenager, she had a difficult relationship with her mother which led to running away from home and leaving school as a sophomore to work.
“Our relationship suffered the effects of my mother’s substance abuse in the home, and me exploring my independence and identity was probably more than she could handle,” Alexis says. “I became a chronic runaway and was even threatened by the Queens Juvenile court to make me a ward of the state if I ran away one more time. I would spend weeks at a time at friends, parks and any safe haven I could find. I relied on a close-knit group of friends and our only focus was not to be forced to stay in an unsafe city shelter. We knew we were better off on the outside.”
Alexis worked as a waitress, Girl Friday, administrative assistant, supermarket cashier, hostess at Tavern on The Green, ticket clerk at TicketMaster and created her first business, College Students on The Move, which offered apartment cleaning on the Upper East Side.
“I hadn’t even finished high school yet and I knew people would be apprehensive about hiring a teenager to clean,” she recalls. “I would have my friends call and pretend to be ‘the College’ confirming I had arrived on time, ensuring my safety.”
Living place to place, she had her own experience with homelessness and financial insecurity. But Alexis wanted more. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around her.
At 17, Alexis and two friends sublet a rent stabilized apartment on Saint Nicholas Avenue in Central Harlem. She realized that she needed a career for better financial security, so at age 18 she secured her GED and immediately applied to the New York City Fire Department’s EMT/Cadet program, graduating 10 months later.
“I spent some of the best times riding out of Harlem Hospital (Station 18),” she recalls. “From there, I went on to dispatch (Dispatcher #821) and participate in the city’s forgivable loan program to become a Registered Nurse in 1994.”
Alexis McSween, RN
Alexis didn’t stay away from home for long, moving back to Queens to take care of her grandmother while working and finishing school. After earning her degree, she worked as an RN at White Plains Medical Center during nights and traveled back to Queens to work as an EMT during the days. Eventually, she received an opportunity to work for North Shore University Hospital where she spent 12 years as a cardiothoracic nurse.
During all of these seasons of life – training, school, nursing, taking care of her grandmother – Alexis continued to pursue her interest in real estate. That first multi-family house she purchased at 24 expanded into a second career.
“While I worked as a nurse, I renovated properties, invested in properties both commercial and residential, purchased real estate and satisfied my passion for providing housing in my community and other communities that looked like mine,” she says.
Alexis earned a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management (2006) from Nyack College, and in pursuit of her increasing passion for construction and development, she completed formal training from NYU’s Shack Real Estate Institute with a Master’s of Science in Real Estate Development and minor in Construction Management (2010). While earning her Master’s, she worked as a project manager for an NYC WBE construction & management firm located in Harlem on public projects totaling $3.5 million.
“CCBP program directors, faculty and staff have had a huge impact on my business,” she says.
Access to CCBP’s business resources, and being featured as a CCBP ‘Success Story’, contributed to Alexis winning the Small Business Association’s 2020 Woman Small Business Owner of the Year award.
It takes next-level perseverance, a special kind of strength to work multiple jobs while building a career in an entirely different industry and caring for an aging family member. Alexis calls it “grit” and that quality is what she looks for in the people she hires and collaborates with.
“BLCD is grit and we try to hire grit,” she says. “Grit goes beyond your degree, your qualifications on paper. It defines who you are, your perseverance. Grit might be the only thing that differentiates one candidate from another.”
As a woman of color in a male-dominated industry, Alexis has to call on every bit of her grit to succeed. One way she does that is by leveraging her status as a Black woman business owner. BLCD is a 100% woman-, LGBT and minority-owned and operated, and M/WBE certified. Certification opens doors she might not even know existed otherwise, then she walks through those doors with her wealth of knowledge and experience.
“You could get your certification, but now what? Now comes the hard work,” Alexis says. “You have to make that certification work for you, but it can’t just be about you, it can’t be selfish. You have to make that certification work for the company and then that company impacts the community, its people and the projects it works on.”
Living and working in one’s community fosters a different kind of impact. Every project Alexis ever built from the ground up has been within walking distance of where she lived. Her commitment to her community is sacred and it shows up in BLCD’s hiring practices and the community supports her in return. When Alexis built Baldwin Park in Harlem, nearly every conventional bank she approached turned her down. This lack of conventional financing would raise costs significantly and price the units out of most people’s budget – the neighborhood is the fifth-most gentrified in the country. It was her community, friends and family that provided some of the initial funding. Although her units were not affordable for most people in the neighborhood, she found other ways to make a positive economic impact.
“Since I could not really make this project an affordable one, I asked, how can I still make an impact?” she says. “The answer was to hire a local general contractor for the $4 million project. He’s an MBE, he’s from the Harlem community and he hires from the community. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a way to get the money back into the community.”
Working around obstacles like soaring property taxes and poor real-estate legislation that price people out of communities is “like a tightrope to walk,” Alexis says. Her solution is to consistently hire people from the community for her projects, develop her team and utilize as many M/WBEs as she can. Alexis’s current project is as a Tier 1 subcontractor on The Victoria, the tallest building in Harlem comprised of a Marriott Hotel, theater space, retail and mixed income apartments. She hired a talented project manager who lives within walking distance of The Victoria and is passionate about his community.
Baldwin Park in Harlem
Engaging in inclusive sourcing as a certified business enterprise herself is important to Alexis. It’s part of the “pay it forward” value system instilled in her – and modeled – by her mother and grandmother. Finding the right blend of M/WBE’s and majority-owned businesses is crucial for project and community success. Her track record is strong.
“We’re an M/WBE and we have excellent utilization numbers, subcontracting to other certified businesses,” Alexis says. “These subs have an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with my firm, which is not always the case with larger general contracting firms.”
“Each letter of our certification speaks to our lives in America and how it impacts industry,” she continues. “Our story is different, our access to reasonable capital and competitive business loans is different. Spouses, significant others, family, friends, loved ones and community leaders that meet you at the bank to provide a payroll loan…their bank accounts look different in our communities. Many of our businesses would not exist without their support.” Alexis is in the process of certifying through the NGLCC as yet another way of standing up and being counted.
Alexis’s experiences as a child watching her grandmother and mother, as a teenager figuring out her passion and identity and as an adult pursuing nursing and real estate development give her valuable insight into what it means to live in and create community.
“Gentrification is a double-edged sword because it pushes people out of the community but it also enhances amenities,” she says. “My capstone at NYU was all about supportive affordable housing. When I look at communities, I think about all the things that we need. That’s why development really speaks to me. When you look at how to change the landscape of a community for better access, those are important to me. What are the things that make people’s lives easier, better?”
When she designed Baldwin Park, she included rooftop space, terraces, tall windows and ceilings a washer and dryer in each unit and the trash chutes are located within the units as well. She even had the building smart-wired so owners could have automated homes if needed.
“These amenities aren’t over the top, they’re practical things that aren’t that hard to do,” she says.
It may not be hard to implement these nurturing design choices, but it takes someone with compassion to identify the need for them and passion to incorporate them into a project. For Alexis, it’s a manifestation of her many experiences, skills and thoughtfulness resulting in a fundamental understanding of how to build community.
“Nursing allows me to make a difference, by providing excellent care to all walks of life and in particular my family and community,” she says. “Construction allows me to provide mentorship, jobs, professions and career development to my community. Real estate development allows me to shape a community through thoughtful design and true appreciation of its existing fabric.”
Inclusive sourcing, thoughtful construction and development coupled with her grit to succeed and make an impact – Alexis McSween is making her own way and improving the lives and space around her in the process.
We caught up with Alexis McSween after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to see how she’s faring and learn more about what she’s up to…
Business Equality Pride (BEQPride) is the first publication from the BEQ family of national print and digital magazines exclusively addressing the needs of LGBTQ small-to-medium sized businesses, entrepreneurs and professionals.
The Business Equality Network (BEQ) is a group of strategic media, consulting, research and business accelerators committed to reaching and empowering LGBTQ, women, minority and other underrepresented, underserved and underutilized business communities. BEQ leverages its dedicated communication platforms to facilitate an increase in cross-sector (public, private, civil society) engagement of diverse professionals, business-owners and entrepreneurs.