The president and CEO of Richmond’s Laner Electric Supply Co. has had to overcome everything from glass ceilings to life-threatening medical conditions during a varied and adventurous career. But whatever you do, don’t force Sandra Escalante to face off with the dogs on San Francisco’s Nob Hill again.
While as a teenage mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service years ago, Escalante lugged letters on foot up and down the Nob Hill neighborhood’s ultra steep streets. It may have been the only job or challenge that has gotten the best of her.
“I kept getting chased by dogs and was called ‘mini-mailman,'” Escalante laments (she often pokes fun at her size).
But even then, for the Filipina lesbian who worked her way up to the top of the decisively male-dominated construction industry — only to be forced to fight for it back after suffering a stroke and heart attack at age 38 — those dogs were more bark than bite.
While still employed by the Postal Service, Escalante applied to work as a mail clerk at construction management firm O’Brien Kreitzberg Inc. A woman who interviewed her was stunned that she would apply for the position.
“Why would you want to work for us when you’re working for the federal government?” the woman asked Escalante, referring to the government’s competitive salary and benefits.
To Escalante, the answer was simple.
“I’ll start as a mail clerk, but within three months we will find someone to fill my position and you can train me to do other things,” Escalante responded.
That’s exactly what happened. Escalante proved to her employers she could do more and swiftly rose from a mail clerk to editing project proposals as well as marketing and business development. In her mid-20s, she went on to work for a Point Richmond company doing similar work, then later became assistant project manager working “for 12 white, middle-age men with very different personalities” at Lera Electric in San Francisco.
Even in the early 1990s, a female colleague “was in disbelief that a woman could have a business card,” Escalante said. Convincing some of her supervisors she was more than a glorified secretary wasn’t easy.
Escalante kept at it, and in short time became vice president and CFO of San Francisco-based CBF Electric, managing a company with more than 100 employees. She would later become a partner and then outright own the business before she was struck by perhaps her greatest challenge of all.
Escalante’s stroke and heart attack paralyzed her for months. The life-changing moment prompted her to sell the company and return to the Philippines to rehabilitate.
But Escalante bounced back — and this time she didn’t have to convince anyone she could do it. In 2012, after living in the Philippines for long enough to meet her wife, Melissa, she received a phone call from Jim Laner, owner of Laner Electric Supply Co. at 1310 S. 51st St. in Richmond.
She was no longer the tiny lesbian woman fighting to break into the male-dominated construction industry. Now, a white man was calling to ask her to travel back from the Philippines — more than 8,000 miles — to help manage his business. She purchased a majority share of the company and became President and CEO in April of last year.
“And I’m happy I did,” she says.
Laner Electric Supply has almost no turnover, Escalante said, as current employees were described as experts, veterans and consummate professionals. She says one of the main reasons she moved forward with buying a stake in the company was to ensure those 15 professionals, many of whom are local residents, could continue to work and raise their families.
Some of her recent management decisions, and also her push to make connections with local business community, including the West County Council of Industries, have been credited with improving the company’s local position.
Escalante doesn’t believe she has some magic potion for battling adversity. In fact, she says she hardly noticed there was a glass ceiling until she after she’d smashed through it.
Rather, she believes her unrelenting hunger for new challenges and dogged resistance to boredom have been integral to her success.
When she was a bullied, straight As gay student in high school, her response was “to heck with this.” She passed her state proficiency exam and left high school at age 15 to begin amassing work experience at McDonald’s and as a telemarketer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
One of her most profound life lessons, Escalante said, came when she made a mistake while working for a perfectionist at O’Brien Krietzberg. Escalante had noticed an error in a project proposal, but let another supervisor convince her not to fix it. When her perfectionist boss noticed the error and expressed disappointment, Escalante cried.
“She said, ‘No excuses, young lady,'” Escalante recalled. “Don’t you dare cry in front of me. If I give you a job to do, you better do the job.”
To Escalante, getting the job done has always mattered more than the severity of her obstacles.
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