New Orleans engineer and entrepreneur Kristi Hoke Mirambell was only 28 when she decided to break out on her own and start an engineering firm. To make her dream a reality, she took the unusual step of turning to her employer at the time, the highly regarded Audubon Engineering, and asking for assistance in starting up her own firm.
The firm ended up being the primary investor in what is now K-Belle, Mirambell’s successful New Orleans-based engineering and construction company, which specializes in heavy civil engineering projects for government entities.
It all started with a vision — and then took drive and skill to see the firm through a decade-long and occasionally bumpy path toward a Louisiana success story. “I was so young that I didn’t know what I was doing was risky,” she says. “When I started, it was ludicrous to me that failure was an option.”
Mirambell briefly considered a career in psychology, but it quickly became clear that engineering was a better fit for her propensity to tinker and desire to understand how things work. “I got into engineering as a college freshman and I loved it,” she says. “I loved the hands-on learning, I loved the way that math was involved and that it was about problem solving. It just really clicked with the way that I thought.”
After graduating from the University of New Orleans in 2003, Mirambell started as a civil and structural engineer for Audubon Engineering, specializing in offshore design supporting the state’s oil and gas industry. But five years into the job, Mirambell felt she was no longer progressing with her design work the way she hoped.
“I was starting to get complacent with where I was in design,” she says. “I was looking for that next adrenaline rush.”
As it turns out, the company leadership had also realized she would likely need to move on to progress in her career — and they decided to support her next endeavor. “I thought that was a great way of seeing your employees,” she says. “I have that same culture inside of K-Belle.”
Audubon’s investment was contingent on Mirambell agreeing to not compete with their offshore business, so she decided to target the public sector, concentrating on government work. “I started my career all over at the age of 28 in the public industry,” she says. “Because I was so young, I didn’t realize what I was about to do was so crazy.”
Once on her own, Mirambell initially found work as a consultant to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was heavily involved in ongoing rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. She focused on her consulting work during the day and ran a fledgling construction division of K-Belle on nights and weekends.
Mirambell worked primarily as a consultant for six years, until 2013, when she decided it was time to focus exclusively on growing her business. “I really changed the way I looked at business. I used to think you just worked really hard to do well in business,” she says. “Then I started thinking about how strategy could help my business grow.”
Mirambell says a major turning point for her firm came after she attended the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, an intensive business-training program that helps business owners strategically grow their companies.
“I’ve always been huge on education, I’ve always loved learning,” she says. “When I took Goldman Sachs, it gave me the tools and the confidence to take the next step.”
The transition was far from smooth early on. Mirambell struggled to secure customers and lost a considerable amount of equity she had built in the company in the first nine months. “I jumped off the cliff and I fell straight on my face,” she says.
Mirambell had her third child as she was struggling to transition her business from consulting to a full-service engineering and construction firm, but she continued to press forward. “I wasn’t afraid to fail. I told myself there was no way I was going to lay in bed and say, ‘I should have done this,’” she says.
She wrote a list of every action and opportunity she would need to try in order for her to be at peace if her company didn’t work out. She implemented those ideas and slowly began to turn the business around. “Over time, I gradually pulled K-Belle back up and running, got things moving and added admin to help me get to the next level,” she says. “Since then, we’ve experienced great, smart growth.”
Today, the company has grown considerably, offering a wide range of services from project management to multidiscipline engineering to design and drafting and construction.
The company is an integral part of Louisiana’s engineering and construction industry, which remains strong despite not reaching the heights of the post-hurricane building boom of the late 2000s. “The work is steady, relative to the other parts of the country, but it’s definitely nothing compared to what we experienced after Katrina,” she says. “It’s a highly competitive industry.”
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