Jacqueline Pruitt: The steel boss of Sankofa Park

Jacqueline Pruitt, founder, and owner of Marvella Steel Placers (MSP) starts her day at 6 a.m., sitting at a desk in front of the computer in her spacious, yet sparsely decorated office in Signal Hill.

Behind her sits a fish tank where her turtle “Shelley” lives. Behind the tank is a poster visible through the water with Martin Luther King Jr.’s image and the words: “I Have A Dream.”

But Pruitt has more than a dream. As one of only a handful of female-owned and Black-owned rebar installation companies, the Long Beach native is a trailblazer as well as a no-nonsense boss.

Marvella, which launched in 2016, has installed rebar (steel bar used to reinforce concrete) on three Purple Line stations and three stations at the Regional Connector Transit Project. The company also worked on the I-15 freeway between the 91 and 10 freeways.

Today, Pruitt’s company is providing the rebar to Destination Crenshaw (DC), the 1.3-mile open-air art and culture corridor being built along Crenshaw Boulevard.  The project includes the landmark Sankofa Park, currently under construction, and for which Pruitt’s company already has delivered and installed rebar.

Jacqueline Pruitt, founder, and owner of Marvella Steel Placers, in her Signal Hill office next to the fish tank where her turtle “Shelley” lives.

With an average of 20-60 employees working on various transportation systems such as trains and highways, she has to keep her eyes on the ball.

Depending on the size of the project, Pruitt said her smallest contract could be in the neighborhood of $15,000 and her largest about $9.6 million.

In the highly competitive construction industry and rebar business, Pruitt has fought for acceptance. Because Destination Crenshaw is special to her, she fought equally hard to win the bid for the history-making project.

“When I started reading about Destination Crenshaw, I said, ‘this is my job,’ Pruitt said. “I really wanted it because it means something to me. It has meaning. I frequent that area. Leimert Park is special. To build that, yeah, I had to be a part of it. I had to.”

Hers is a track record to make any company owner proud, but Pruitt has bested unusually long odds.

When she was younger, she took several wrong turns. She wrestled with drug use and homelessness and was in and out of jail.

That life ended on May 19, 2003.

“I got arrested at one of the places I used to hang out,” Pruitt said. “The idea to shoot up drugs was in my mind when the police came. A week prior I had broken down and asked God to help me. Thankfully, my parole officer sent me to treatment instead of jail. It worked.”

Since then, Pruitt has been sober.

If not for the courage she mustered to turn her life around, MSP would have never been a dream.

With her commitment, came a business model that has stood her in good stead.

“We perform safely and do high-quality work in the field and in the office,” she said. “We are professional; we remain in compliance, have reasonable prices, and we work with our customers and provide certification if their project needs to meet certifications.”

Since Marvella Steel Placers opened, the company has completed 22 jobs.

“Not bad for a girl,” Pruitt said, smiling.

Now that she’s the boss and no longer physically working on construction sites, Pruitt said she misses “getting my hands dirty.”

Pruitt oversees the unloading of rebar at the future site of Destination Crenshaw’s anchor attraction, Sankofa Park.

“The last time I got my hands dirty was more than a year ago,” she said. “Then Destination Crenshaw started, and I couldn’t help but put my tool belt on and tie some bar with the guys. My hands are soft now. But, in case I’m needed, I still have my tool belt.”

On this morning, Pruitt is checking for upcoming jobs, greeting some of her workers, taking calls, making deals, and talking to one of her foremen about the progress on a current job – all in the span of five minutes. And, she makes it look easy.

This, she says, is the life she dreamed for herself.

“I love being a Black-owned, woman-owned company,” she said. “I also like that it’s very physical. When I got into this, I was 29. I had to be smart. It was a great opportunity to grow.”

Marvella Steel Placers is named after Pruitt’s mother as a way to pay homage to the woman who always showed her unconditional love.

“My mother was my everything,” Pruitt said. “Even though I was doing some things she didn’t necessarily approve of, she still loved me.”

Now that Pruitt is gaining success, she’d like to see more women “making their mark in construction.”

“Women have a place in construction,” she said. “Just look at me. If someone doesn’t give you a chance, make a way for yourself. There’s a place for everybody. Black women come from Egyptian queens. We can do anything.”

Pruitt came by her interest in construction honestly. Her father, now 87, was in construction. She remembers, vividly, him being a hard worker who would leave the house at 4 a.m. to go to work.

“At the time, I didn’t know what he did,” she said. “I knew he came home dirty and smelled unusual.”

Two decades later, her actual leap into construction began quite by accident. One day she ran into a female friend, who is a carpenter working on a large project.

“She was dressed all dirty,” said Pruitt, who studied psychology at Long Beach City College and Cal State Fullerton. “I asked her what she did and she told me. I asked how much it paid. She told me, and I said, “Where do I sign up?”

That’s when Pruitt applied for a pre-apprenticeship – during which she was taught trades from laying concrete, to plumbing, framing, and, yes, rebar.

“When I got into construction, I had to learn to be assertive,” she said. “My foreman told me to grow some balls. I learned how to be assertive and let people know what they have to do. I started as an apprentice, then became a journeyman, then a foreman. I then became a general foreman for the guy that got me into rebar. He planted a seed.”

In her third year as an apprentice, Pruitt earned the Lead Ironworker position on projects such as Berth 200 in the Port of Los Angeles, the Automated Container Movers in the Port of Long Beach, freeway lane additional bridges, abutments, and miles of retaining walls and barrier rail on the 91 Freeway.

Additionally, she worked slab on metal decks for the famous Wilshire Grand Center high-rise. Shortly after achieving her journeyman status, she earned the foreman position and built the Hollywood Park Casino on time and under budget.  From there she began managing three or more jobs simultaneously. 

Pruitt has steadily grown into her self-assurance but admits she “had no idea” what owning her own company entailed.

“Well, I didn’t know this was an owning- your-own-company type deal,” said Pruitt, who brought in her niece, as office manager, to help her run MSP. “All I wanted to do, initially, was to just go grab some guys I worked with and go do a job.”

Instead, she ended up going to bidding classes and learning how to look for jobs.

“It took a year and a half to figure it out,” she said. “I was told by some people that because I was a Black woman-owned company, I’d be at a disadvantage contract-wise.”

Today Pruitt is positioning her Marvella Steel Placers to be the premier rebar installation company signatory to Ironworkers Local 416 holding the following designations:  SBE, DBE, WBE, MBE, LBE, CBE and LGBTBE.

Throughout her life, Pruitt said people gave her a chance, so she wants to pay it forward.

“My hope is to continue to be a better me and be in a position to help others,” she said. “There is a big piece of pie to be had, but, [more people need to get] to the table to eat it.”

— By Darlene Donloe

VIDEO: Pruitt on the first concrete pour at Sankofa Park.