Denver based CEO and businesswoman Denise Burgess is this year’s inductee for the biennial Black’s in Colorado Hall of Fame award. The nomination is meant to recognize an African American who has become the first to accomplish a professional goal in their trade or has supported the African American community whilst achieving success. Burgess is not only the first African American board chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce but has remained CEO of her construction management company, Burgess Services, exemplifying the criteria of such a nomination.
“It’s an honor, it also means leaving a legacy behind,” said Burgess. The CEO and mother is well known for her tenacious nature and simultaneously attributes her success to the accomplishments of the inductee’s that came before her. “I stand on their shoulders, there would be no Denise Burgess without them first making that trail for me to go behind.” She believes their struggle paved the way for her success.
Burgess is a third-generation college graduate and a staunch supporter of education. In 2013, she launched the Burgess Family Fund Foundation, an organization created to fund programs for girls of color interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. The sixth and seventh-grade girls from the Laredo Middle School in Aurora, are among many of the foundation’s recipients. Burgess optimizes her support for the girls by assigning projects, organizing public speaker events and attending receptions hosted at the school. Burgess shed some light on her upcoming project with the girls.
“They’re going to design their dream home by dimension. I’m going to give them all the equipment they need to design, what does your dream home look like?”
The Burgess Family Fund Foundation also supports the Colorado Association of Black Engineers and Science School Program, however, Burgess plans to distribute services provided by the foundation to more institutions across the state. “We have expanded criteria to fund organizations which have a positive impact within the Colorado community including donations to the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, Inner City Health Center, Urban Peak and University of Northern Colorado Foundation,” she said.
Burgess admits that aside from her family, she did not receive the same support pursuing her professional goals, especially in high school. She emphasizes the importance of providing this support to the younger generation, as they may not understand their capability due to sexist or racist social standards. “There shouldn’t be a limit of what you can and can’t do, sometimes we try to put girls and girls of color in certain categories,” she stated. Born into a generation that attempted to marginalize women pursuing the sciences, Burgess plans to capitalize on the growing number of women, especially black women in her field today.
Even so, there is still a level of prejudice that exists within the workforce. Burgess spoke about the girl test, a series of entry-level questions men in her field constantly ask women to analyze their knowledge. “The girl test is when you go on a walk and they say, do you know this equipment, do you know what this is,” said Burgess. Despite these instances, Burgess ultimately educates colleagues on her qualifications and experience. “When I first started, I’d be offended or angry and now I just think like, okay I now have an opportunity for you to learn that anyone can do this work and they can do it well,” she said.
Burgess owes her awareness to the way that she was raised, learning values that flourished her confidence whilst instilling an openness to learn. “I come from a family of very strong women, so it’s very; I know who I am and I know what I know,” she went on to say, “I’m also humble enough to tell you I may not know everything.”
Despite these incidents, Burgess recognizes and celebrates the diversity within the Denver business community. “The one thing I love about being chair of the chamber … I get to see people that don’t look like me have a different idea, and that could be gender race, ethnicity, immigrant everything,” she said. However, the CEO believes that there needs to be more inclusiveness amongst each industries resources, in order to maintain the bold and unique nature of Denver’s architecture. “I just want to make sure we don’t lose our sense of bold ideas, we include everybody in those bold ideas and make sure everybody’s voices are heard,” she stated.
Burgess has worked on multiple projects across the country, including managing the construction of the Westin Terminal of the DIA airport to which Burgess Services provided subcontracts for the construction work to be carried out by other companies. Critics claim she did not subcontract enough work to minority firms as she claimed she would. To this Burgess responded, “It was a lack of communication.”
It can be difficult for many to conceptualize the subtle level of racism and sexism that still exists in the workforce today. However, Burgess aims to respond to these beliefs by imploring her knowledge and expertise on every project she works on. She continues to build relationships with those who hold different beliefs, collaborating in such a way that celebrates the diversity of construction in Denver. “Part of my DNA is making sure that people understand African American women can be great in business, can be great in construction, can be great for the community and can leave a legacy for the generation that comes behind us,” she said.
Her effort to break barriers is something many people still do not fully appreciate today. However, Burgess personifies a level of understanding and professionalism that speaks to the culture of the Black’s in Colorado Hall of Fame.
Hannah Miles, a Denver Public Library staff member and project lead of the Juanita Gray Community Service Awards and Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame ceremony said, “There is little question that Denise Burgess exemplifies the standards required to be among the great men and women of the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame.”
All photography by Meg O’Neill.