Interview 10: Michelle, a Metalworker

Michelle is a metalworker and runs her own welding business in Southern California

Women Who Weld, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that teaches women how to weld and find employment in the welding industry, has launched a new program - Arclight - in which we showcase women who create, ideate, and collaborate across specializations and trades.

Michelle Kim is a metalworker in Southern California. She started her welding business, Allegro Steel, in January 2019. Michelle holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental economics and policy from the University of California, Berkeley. Below is an edited and condensed interview between Samantha Farrugia, the founder of Women Who Weld, and Michelle, a former Women Who Weld participant, in August 2021.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Koreatown in Los Angeles. I moved there when I was three from South Korea. It was during the LA riots so my parents almost moved back.

Do you remember the riots at all?

I remember I couldn’t go outside, sometimes there were no lights, and I remember it was just not safe to go out.

Why did your family move from South Korea to Los Angeles?

My dad initially wanted to move for business opportunities.

You received a bachelor’s degree in environmental economics and policy from UC Berkeley. Why did you pursue this degree?

I really wanted to go into water management; for me, it was a real-life example of applying economic principles. I got into a master's program in London to pursue it further, but right after graduation, a family member passed away, so I decided to go back home and that's when my career sort of branched into various parts and I was more open to different opportunities.

You have had a lot of different jobs: you were an intern at the World Health Organization in Rome, Italy; a pastry cook at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, CA; and an office manager at a structural steel company in Los Angeles, CA. What made you want to weld?

I worked with the World Health Organization during college – it was a summer internship for study abroad and it was what I wanted to get into. We focused on water rights and I compared water pricing and affordability to other countries and performed impact analysis.

After graduating from Berkeley, my biological father passed away and I never got to know him, so I kind of had a quarter-life crisis. And I really wanted to figure out what I wanted to do and asked myself, “What is my career track? What should I be doing?” and also considered practical things like income, which led me to switch gears and pursue getting into dental school. I was taking post-baccalaureate classes and that got me into pastry because I needed to perform manual dexterity, I needed to use my hands. A lot of dental students work with their hands and do art like sculpture or ceramics. I thought breadmaking could be an interesting way to show I’m good with my hands, so I took a couple of classes just for fun to help with the dental school application process. I then realized I should just jump into pastry. I found a French restaurant here in LA that gave me an opportunity to work with them and learn on the job, so that’s how I switched into the pastry world. 

And the structural steel company was my dad’s; he is retired now, but he was a fabricator and also had a welding business. I was always involved with his shop when I was growing up, mostly office-related work, but I was always involved.

South Korea is the sixth largest producer of steel in the world and the world’s largest steel mill is located there. Did your dad start his structural steel business in South Korea or in Los Angeles?

My dad started it when he moved here to LA. And I’m totally in awe sometimes of immigrants, how quickly they start from scratch; they learn as much as possible and they’re very entrepreneurial. I now realize it must have not been easy for him, especially with a language barrier. My parents completely started over as adults, which, I think, is a much harder time to assimilate to a culture.

As someone who moved here at the age of three, but with an upbringing in the United States, do you consider yourself an immigrant?

I get pulled into both sides. My values are definitely American but also very Korean. For example, respecting elders is a big component of Korean culture and that is sometimes where I have an internal struggle. Korean culture is based on hierarchy and age is quite important – even when you’re a year apart, you have to respect what the older person tells you. That aspect I don’t fully agree with, and so pulling away from that is very American; speaking out for yourself, standing up and stating how you feel directly. But I’ve also started to realize I am more Korean than I thought. I gravitate toward Korean food now, but I wasn’t always like this. And in terms of cultural values, I am American, but I hold on to Korean, or what we call Confucius values, like filial piety, where you respect your elders and take care of your parents; and that responsibility is not a burden, it’s just something you do.

Where did you learn how to weld?

I learned at my dad’s shop and, in 2014, I also went through a full year of immersive training at Southern California Regional Occupational Center (SCROC) in Torrance. I learned MIG, flux-cored, but mostly stick welding – it was heavily stick.

You’re an American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector (CWI), what does that entail?

I got my CWI Certification while I was working with my dad. I had been involved with my dad’s business for the past 10 years, even while working in other industries. I still take continuing education on it, but I’m not an active CWI – though it has helped me with quality control on my end. It’s interesting because as a certified welding inspector, you’re inspecting welds and inspecting the work, and now I’m the one getting inspected, so I kind of flipped the role. And as much as I love the book work and figuring out the codes, when I first started, I never felt that comfortable because I was too careful and too in-depth, and there are a lot of politics involved. I enjoy focusing more on the craft than really trying to take apart someone else’s work.

I also have certifications in structural welding, bolting, and fireproofing from ICC (International Code Council). I thought I really wanted to get into special inspections too, but it was very difficult for me to get steady work.

For those who don’t know, the American Welding Society (AWS) is a non-profit organization, founded in 1919, with a mission to “advance the science, technology and application of welding and allied joining and cutting processes, including brazing, soldering and thermal spraying.” AWS largely sets the standards for welding; for example, AWS D1.1 Structural Steel Code contains the requirements for fabricating and erecting welded steel structures and it is one of the world’s most widely used standards.

And to become a Certified Welding Inspector (CWI), you must pass a rigorous three-part exam administered by the American Welding Society. A CWI determines if a weld meets specific code, standard, or other specification, among other responsibilities incidental to the role.

You attended the American Advanced Technical Academy and took courses in radiography, magnetic particle, penetrant, ultrasonic, and visual testing. Can you tell me more about these courses?

I was exploring avenues in non-destructive testing and AATA is a nonprofit that offers free training for veterans and women. So I went through the whole program, trying to figure out which one I wanted to do. I love learning and it was a great classroom setting to learn different types of non-destructive testing. It was intensive training: 8 hours a day in the classroom, but also hands-on work to get some field experience.

When did you start your welding business, Allegro Steel?

I started it 2 years ago in 2019.

What type of work does your company engage in?

I specialize in ornamental ironwork: decorative stair railings, handrails, balcony rails. I’ve built customized storage lockers, metal kitchen shelves, metal stairs, columns, beams, fences, and scrolls for ornamental gates - mostly for multi-family residential, as it’s better for scale to fabricate the same thing over and over again, but I also do work for single-family residential and commercial properties.

It’s been a learning process to understand what a client’s needs are. For example, they may want a door for packages, or doggy doors, and I am learning how to incorporate low-voltage elements into these doors.

I love the work. I love figuring out how it’s all going to fit, the type of material I need, reading blueprints. That aspect I really like.

I also have to make sure my work is sound and following code so I don’t have issues, and that the client is happy in the end with the aesthetics and style.

Does your dad help out as an advisor?

Yes, he does. He is 89 years old and he still comes out with me every day. We agree but we also love to disagree, so it’s an interesting dynamic. He is someone I trust, and I feel better when he’s at the shop so I can go out and win business. That’s the trouble, I need to run a shop, so when do I have time to go out and meet people and visit sites to see what they need to have done? I feel better that someone I trust is overseeing the work and the work can continue.

What’s your schedule like, including start and end time, each day? Which days of the week do you work?

I get up around 5:15-5:20 a.m. and we open our shop at 7 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. Sometimes we have to work Saturdays, but we typically work 5 days, sometimes 6 days. On the weekends, I usually spend a lot of time doing not-so-fun bookwork like my expenses and all the mundane, but necessary, tasks. Sometimes I spend time on estimating when I’m home. But when I’m at the shop, I’m pretty involved on the floor. And I really try to keep track of production time because that affects how I prepare my proposal.

Because of such crazy price increases in everything, especially metal, I’m learning I have to think ahead. I learned my lesson the hard way. One of my welding machines broke and I already had a quote, but I put it off too long and, when I needed to get the machine, the price had doubled! So, with those things, I need to look ahead to stock up on consumables and materials.

Describe what you did at work today.

I start every day at the shop, and today I had to go out and meet with a client. I then had to pick up some things from powder coating, but they weren’t ready, so I came back to the shop to finish a stair railing. I have an installation tomorrow, so I packed all my tools at closing, and then I came home. In the evening, after dinner, I prepare proposals and go through my emails again and see what I should do for tomorrow.

How big is your facility?

It’s like 3,500 square feet and we have a yard space, so it’s nice to be able to work out outside as well.

How did you fund outfitting your facility?

My dad helped me out with his equipment and tools, I don’t think I would have had the courage to start if I hadn’t had my dad’s help.

My dad has other kids, my step brothers and sisters, but none of them wanted to take on the business because it’s very difficult work. And I think my dad never thought his daughter would do it! But I’m proud to say I went through my own path to get here, getting licenses and certifications. I was going the inspection route, and struggling to figure out where I sit, and then it merged beautifully: to continue what my dad started.

Which process of welding do you primarily engage in?

Definitely more MIG, and flux-cored for field work, and stick periodically.

What’s your favorite welding process and why?

I like stick, even though it’s messy. It’s fun for me because it’s all about hand positioning and it’s classic, it’s the first form of arc welding.

Do you weld every day?

I used to be more involved every day, but now I’m trying to get more business. I’m facing a little bit of downtime because I spent so much time in the shop, and I didn’t go out to win business, so now I have to switch gears and do that. So, right now, I have more of a business development role.

And I’m not really a chatty person, I’m not very good at public speaking, and I’m an introvert. I gain more energy by having alone time and doing things on my own. So this is sort of out my comfort zone. It’s been quite a journey. Fun, but also a lot of headaches!

What is it like to start your own business / to become an entrepreneur? Is it harder, easier, or what you expected?

I think harder because there is no day off, and I don’t think that if I knew about it I would have had the instinct to just go for it, so I think it’s better that I didn’t.

Do you manage all of the operational aspects of your business – accounting, marketing, client management, inventory, and so on?

Because I’m just starting off, I pretty much try to do everything in-house.

How do your clients find you?

It’s mostly word of mouth, and that's why relationships are so important. Face-to-face interactions are so important and I think that's how I mainly win business.

How do you think your higher education prepared you to learn a new skill and scale a new business in a new industry so quickly?

My degree helped me become more business-minded and gave me various experiences and made me more worldly. Construction is a tough industry, it’s very competitive and there are a lot of players. I try to remain present but also forward-thinking and consider how the world is evolving. I read about industry flows and stay aware of the economy as a whole and how it affects commodity prices. Higher education also prepared me to put together presentations and drawings to present to clients. And I learned how to be more professional, which helps when working directly with clients, engineers, or general contractors. But if I did go back to school, I would become a structural engineer.

You’re only 32 years old, what are your future career aspirations and plans for Allegro Steel?

I want to learn more software programs or how to run higher-level robotics or advanced technology related to welding. I want to attend more events like FABTECH to explore new equipment and to meet like-minded people.

I think there are a lot of opportunities in the construction industry that I haven’t tapped into. Right now, I am trying to figure out how to separate myself from competition. So much is just price-driven – clients literally just look at your numbers – but I feel I provide so much more than just a number. But when you don’t have a brand and you’re making a fence or simple railing, you wouldn’t exactly know it was made by me or Allegro Steel, and that’s why it’s just sort of a commodity and why it can be a tricky industry because you can easily have a price gouging incident where people might be willing to do the work for next to nothing if the economy is bad.

So this is something I want to figure out. If I can find a niche, something I’m really good at, or something that I am the sole maker of and hold the intellectual property for, I feel like that could be a more of a game changer. I wish I could find an accelerator or a center where I could explore these things, because I love to brainstorm ideas. I feel like that’s the only way I can see myself in this industry long-term because, again, there are so many players and so much of it is just about price. If you don’t give someone the best price, you’re out, and matching that number is hard, so I’m trying to figure out, “How do I separate myself?”, and I want to do better than just survive.

“I like stick . . . it’s classic, it’s the first form of arc welding.”

Why did you name your business Allegro Steel?

I play flute and I grew up in a very music-oriented family. Allegro means lively and fast-paced in music terms and also in Italian. I wanted to incorporate something from my music background and also a name that wasn’t so masculine. I wanted the name to have a lively, happy aspect.

What are the things you like most about running your own welding business?

I determine how I use my time, though, of course, so much of it is on my client’s time. I think eventually achieving independence and financial freedom.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered as a business owner, if any?

Right now, it’s winning business and figuring out the best price, because there is no standard and I think that’s why construction is the way it is – it’s not as transparent and there is asymmetrical information. I sometimes wish I knew how much others were charging. There are books on this, but it’s not as formulaic, it’s not as standardized. I guess it’s called the trades because it’s sort of kept within and passed down. That’s the secret, you make money because you keep it within. I just have to come up with my own formula.

You have been welding for over 5 years, when was the first time you welded alongside other women?

During Women Who Weld’s single-day workshop in 2019!

What was it like to weld alongside other women for the first time?

It was a more-friendly environment, you don’t feel like you have to prove something.

And beyond welding, I felt like you were curious about everyone’s stories, why they were interested in welding.

What was your experience like as a participant in one of our introductory workshops?

It was great to learn about your organization, it was great that it was hands-on. And what you do is so inspiring, and that was fun too, learning about what you do and that you can make an impact in this industry and do so much in different ways. And, of course, meeting other women. I still wear my Women Who Weld shirt by the way!

Do you have advice for women who may be interested in pursuing a path in welding or starting a welding business? 

I struggle with this question because I’m like, “Am I in any position to give advice?” But I faced skepticism when getting certification, so I think any skepticism should be a motivator. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but it really helps me sometimes. I try to take away the emotional part of it and think of the things I need to do to get there. I try to shift my energy in that way. There are people who are unsure, like, “Hmm, can she do this?” And then I’m like, “Oh, really, watch me.”

What do you like to do in your free time?

Music is big, I play flute and that’s been like my entire life. I picked up a new hobby recently: golf with my husband. It’s something more active and I’m not very athletic, so golf was one thing where I thought, “Oh, I could actually do this.” And cooking, now I can actually make desserts for fun! My husband does a lot of savory dishes, he’s the main chef in the house, and I joke that I’m his prep cook because I just cut, peel, and clean.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?

I would go to Korea, because I haven’t been there for over 10 years. I would like my husband to meet my relatives. We haven’t had a chance to do that because I was starting my business and then the pandemic hit. I usually love to go to Europe, but this time I want to go to Korea so my relatives can meet my husband.