The construction industry remains a male-dominated sector – and certainly a tough one for women to simultaneously start and grow a business as well as start a family. But step forward Dipalee Jukes. 

After joining the industry as a graduate and working for a small engineering firm, she founded Ground & Water with fellow Southampton University alumnus Fran Williams in 2009. By working for herself, she decided, she could dodge the orthodoxies, make up her own rules and chart her own path.

Ground & Water is a geotechnical and environmental engineering company that provides technical expertise to structural engineers and land developers. It now has a team of 19 and works with the construction industry across the south of England. Its projects range from luxury basements for private homeowners to site investigations for land developers building up to 300 homes.

It wasn’t easy, making up her own rules. There were months of persistent cold-calling. Fran even kept a skip in his garden to dispose of used soil samples. But the clients started to come in – and a small profit was made by the end of the first year.

Dipalee stresses that Ground & Water differentiates itself through its people. Just as her previous experience in the industry informed her decision to found her own business, it also informed the culture that she wanted to create within it. She describes the Ground & Water team as a community that puts its people first.

Ground & Water also champions a more diverse work environment in a sector that remains prominently un-diverse. Jukes notes that several female employees mentioned that a primary reason for applying was seeing a woman at the top of the company. Promoting female engineers and developing female leadership in an industry that is primarily male-dominated is a cause that Jukes is proud of.  

COVID and its effects have been difficult for the construction industry. When inflation is high, people simply do not build things. Ground & Water also struggles in an environment that is dominated by larger competitors who boast greater capacity. One example of this is in drilling rigs; an expensive piece of kit that enables soil sample collection through boring holes. Some larger competitors field entire fleets of these rigs, Ground & Water manages with just one. 

In the medium term, Ground & Water aims to expand further north with the eventual goal being UK-wide coverage. The next revenue milestone is £5m. But that also means taking on external finance. While the co-founders have bootstrapped their business thus far, and didn’t choose to seek external finance, Dipalee indicates that this is likely to change as the company looks to meet capacity challenges and continue scaling up.

She notes the Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Companies programme as hugely influential in this decision. The course gave her confidence as a business leader, access to world class resources and coaches at Oxford University, and an invaluable network of other entrepreneurs that offered cross-peer support

The ambition is there, but Jukes is conscious of the challenges SMEs like hers face in meeting it. She points to rising insurance costs, which have quadrupled in some cases in recent years, as just one factor that makes it particularly difficult for companies like hers to scale and take on bigger contracts.

Government can certainly be doing more to help, according to Jukes. When asked about the British Business Bank, Jukes says that she has had a look, but speaks to a broader lack of signposting that makes life difficult for time-pressured smaller businesses like hers. A point person that could help her navigate would be helpful, she says.

As a female co-founder of a successful growing business in the construction sector, Dipalee Jukes is proving that her unconventional model can thrive in her sector. The industry that she joined in 2003 does look different today, even though there is more progress to be made. While there remain significant growth challenges, her ‘make up your own rules’ ambition combined with the creation of a positive and inclusive working culture makes Ground & Water a fascinating role model.

"You have to make your own rules".

Dipalee Jukes, CEO of Ground & Water