By Erin Garrett
University of Mississippi
A life’s journey is not always a straight line – there can be many twists and turns. Sometimes you end up right back where you started, but in the best possible way.
Stephanie Hickman’s story is a testament to this, and she is slated to share it with the University of Mississippi’s Class of 2023. The president and CEO of Trice Construction Co., in Chicago, will deliver a Commencement address at morning convocation at 8 a.m. May 13 in the Grove.
“I was stunned when I got the invitation to speak,” said Hickman, a 1991 graduate of the UM School of Law. “It was not something that I had ever considered. After the shock wore off, I felt really good about it.
“To be recognized like this by your alma mater is amazing. When I talk about it, I just can’t stop smiling.”
After a career as a labor attorney, utility executive and lobbyist, Hickman left corporate America in 2006 to buy the construction company her father and three uncles started in 1967. Under her leadership, Trice Construction has transformed from a small residential construction company to an award-winning utility infrastructure contractor serving Fortune 500 corporations, top 100 general and infrastructure contractors, and major public entities.
“It is always a special day on our campus when we welcome back one of our highly esteemed and accomplished alumni to speak to our graduates.” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said. “This year, I’m thrilled that the Class of 2023 will have the opportunity to be inspired by Stephanie Hickman, a transformational leader of an award-winning company that has experienced tremendous growth and success on a national level.
“Our graduates will learn a lot from her story and the legacy she has built with her life. We’re looking forward to her address, and we’re excited to welcome Stephanie home to Ole Miss.”
Originally from Chicago, Hickman and her family moved to Shannon, in Lee County, just before she entered ninth grade. She enrolled in 1979 at UM, where she was influenced by Lucius Washington, one of the university’s first Black faculty members and assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs. She pursued a degree in public administration until 1982, when she transferred to Eastern New Mexico University, where she graduated.
“During my undergraduate years at Ole Miss, we did not have a very large African American community, but it was very close-knit,” Hickman said. “The relationships that I forged during that time have kept me connected and tied to the university today.”
Five years after earning her undergraduate degree, Hickman enrolled at the law school, where she served as a member of the Mississippi Law Journal and president of the Black Law Students Association. She was heavily influenced by professor Carolyn Ellis Staton, whom she described as “tough but encouraging.”
Upon receiving her law degree, Hickman went back to Chicago and worked for the National Labor Relations Board. She began in the utilities industry in Pittsburgh in the mid ’90s. Eventually, she was recruited back to Chicago to work for a large utility company there.
“This is when it all started to link up,” she said. “I began to realize all the connections between construction and utilities. I learned how much concrete construction there was to support the delivery of electricity. In a meeting with the CEO of the utility company, I noticed a budget line item for concrete and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a big number.’
“At the same time, my uncles were looking to retire and close the business. I realized at that moment that all my career experience could come together for the family business.”
She purchased the company, and the rest is history.
“It sounds like a lot of twists and turns, and zigs and zags, but it landed me back where I started,” Hickman said.
Today, Trice Construction has been designated as the first African American woman-owned construction firm awarded prime and multi-year contracts with companies such as Ameren, ComEd/Exelon, Nicor Gas, Peoples Gas and the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Hickman’s career did not come without challenges, however, especially as a female in the construction industry.
“I’m often the only woman in the room, the only African American in the room and, most times, the only African American woman in the room,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years to navigate those environments. It was a matter of being confident in my knowledge and experience and finding my spot.
“I used to get asked all the time, ‘What do you know about concrete?’ Frankly, I knew a lot about it before I came to the business because I grew up in it. Folks finally understood and got comfortable with my presence and leadership in the industry.”
Hickman was named a 2022 Outstanding CEO in Women’s Enterprise Magazine and among the Notable Women in Construction and Design in 2021 by Crain’s Chicago Business. She is a member of the Economic Club and the Chicago Network and serves on the boards of the Museum of Science and Industry, Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce and the Law Alumni Chapter of Ole Miss Alumni Association.
Susan Duncan, dean and professor of law, said she was delighted that the Class of 2023 will have the opportunity to “hear her words of wisdom as they embark on the next chapter of their lives.”
“Stephanie Hickman is a trailblazer and an inspiration to many of our law students,” Duncan said. “We are so incredibly proud of her and her accomplishments.
“Over the last few years, we have been lucky enough to have Stephanie speak to our law students and business law fellows, where she has offered advice, encouragement and mentorship.”
Hickman said she bears the weight of the responsibility of speaking to the graduating class.
“I want to deliver remarks that will stay with the graduates and might help guide or direct them,” she said. “I want them to know that it’s important to take chances and try new things and go into places where they are uncomfortable.
“If I had to rely on going somewhere comfortable, I would not be where I am today.”
For the complete 2023 Commencement schedule, see the university’s Commencement website.