Oct 12, 2020

Women in Water: Competitors to Co-Owners

In 1983, Kym Kelley and Claudia Chambers teamed up to run their erosion control company

kelley erosion control
Claudia Chambers and Kym Kelley are co-owners of Kelley Erosion Control.

Kym Kelley and Claudia Chambers started out as competitors, but in 1983, they joined forces and now both work for Kelley Erosion Control covering projects in Nevada and California. They shared with SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns how they got their starts in the industry and how they have progressed. 


Katie Johns: How did you get started in your careers?

Kym Kelley: Well, I worked for the forest service doing a hydrology work up at Lake Tahoe back in 1981 to 1982. And after stream peak runoff, they would have us go on to do reclamation on road closures. I just decided to start an erosion control company back in ‘83, and Claudia and I were competitors. We teamed up in ‘83 and she runs the office, and I run the field.

Claudia Chambers: Well, I had a construction company up in Oregon at the time and that's when Kim and I met. We were competing against each other. And since we were both women, we decided to team up and try to see if it worked okay. And it worked out well.


Johns: Is this what you always wanted to do?

Kelley: I really did not plan on being a contractor. It just kind of transitioned. I have a degree in forestry and so it just kind of led into this as a field that worked. We kind of came in at the ground floor of that and have been in business for like 38 years. So I didn't really plan on it, but it is one of those things you get into and you're not too sure how you can get out of it. We just keep flying along.

Chambers:  I think as a young girl, I probably had visions of being a doctor. I mean, you don't think of being contractors. I don't even think I knew a contractor when I was a kid. I've always been an entrepreneur. I owned a couple of businesses before becoming a contractor, so I think you just figure it out. 


Johns: What are some challenges you both have faced that helped you get where you are now?

Kelley: I think the biggest challenge through all the years was probably 2008 when the economy collapsed, and we got some of that American Recovery Act money that was put out creating turnkey projects. That kept us afloat. That was a difficult time. But thank goodness for that program on the other side of that now. We have really good staff, kind of like a family unit. With COVID-19, we’ve been considered an essential business, and we've been working throughout the entire process, so we haven't slowed down at all, but it is challenging.


Johns: How important has it been for you to find women colleagues and mentorships?

Kelley: We have a lot of support from the International Erosion Control Association. We don't have any issues really with being in a male-dominated industry. We get our share of work and work really well with the general contractors, and so it really hasn't been a big issue. 

Chambers:  I think originally when we first started business, it was probably hard to break in, but I think for anybody starting a business it’s hard to break in. You're starting something new. You've got to fit in. You've got to figure out what to do and meet the right people and that kind of thing. I would encourage anybody who feels like they have entrepreneurial spirit and work hard, and they know those two things are part of them, that they get out there and try it.


Johns: What are some accomplishments you're both most proud of in your careers?

Kelley: We've worked on so many projects that are award-winning projects, a lot of stuff around Lake Tahoe. We really do feel like we are a participant in keeping Tahoe blue, keeping the sediments out of the lake. It's an important goal and achievement. We were the recipients of the Outstanding Professional at the IECA Conference 2019. That was a pretty nice honor. 

CC: I think we're proud of all our work. We just finished a huge project that was several years long at Lake Tahoe. That is pretty magnificent. 


Johns: What advice would you give to young women entering the industry?

Kelley: Work hard and you definitely have to perform so you earn the respect of the general contractors you're working for so they can trust you and know that you're going to be able to do a good job for them. 

Chambers: I think take advantage of anything that you can in organizations. In other words, if you're going to go after highway work, there's a lot of help along the way, classes or meetings. And you just have to get out there and let people know who you are. Be willing to be brave enough to go meet them, so they know who you are...You just have to take advantage of everything that comes your way.  


About the author

Kym Kelley and Claudia Chambers are co-owners of Kelley Erosion Control. They can be reached at [email protected] & [email protected].