Simone Bruni grew up like all other little girls. Her parents gave their daughter Barbie dolls and dressed her in beautiful clothes. They instilled in her that she would one day get married to the man of her dreams and have multiple children…the white picket fence and dog were still questionable but probable. She even agreed to their plan as well, going to Ursuline, then Loyola and afterwards traveling to Guatemala and Brazil to do mission work, embracing diverse communities. Afterwards, she joined the corporate world, working in public relations and doing special events; she calls it a “high-heeled” career. Simone enjoyed being a party girl, mastering branding and being on top of everything that was going on in the city. Then Katrina hit and her world turned upside down, literally.
After the hurricane, Bruni had an epiphany and traded in the illusion of the husband, children and picket fence for reality. Although she was never a staunch feminist who desired an audience to watch her change the world, she did affect the plight of some of the people in her neighborhood in the aftermath of Katrina. “It was really something that morphed out of the sincerity of trying to help my community. The strength I got was that once I realized what I thought was my weakness that impeded me was the fact that I didn’t have a husband to help me,” stated Bruni. “Oh my God, I’m alone, I don’t have any children… and once I realized my weakness was my strength—the fact that I wasn’t married and didn’t have children— enabled me to help and gave me the flexibility to do so.”
Neighbors were soon contacting Bruni to find out what was not only going on down the block, but throughout their entire neighborhood; this trust empowered her. “That really charged me up to start helping; that’s how it all started,” said Bruni but on top of that, she had to fix the devastation to her home in Lakeview on her own. “Yes, it was a daunting task and being that I had never worked with a man in construction—which is pretty much a rough type of person—I was highly intimidated,” admitted Bruni. But that did not stop her from standing her ground. “I was like, ‘Wait, I’m paying you and you need to be nice.’ Once we established that, I realized that there were some honorable men in construction that were going to help me and I wanted to take that out to the community. I figured I’d target women with the name in my marketing and certainly there’s someone out there who needed my help. That’s how I got off the ground.”
Off the ground or lifting the ground, whatever you want to call it, Bruni forged ahead with Demolition Diva. She ventured out by buying dumpsters, painting them bright pink and sub-contracting most of her work. “To my surprise, being a woman in a male dominated world, there were many men that wanted to help me. At first I had this perception that they’re going to take advantage. There are a lot of vultures out there, but once you weed through them, you find that more men are like, ‘Girl, you go! I want to give you this job because you are a woman and I’m really proud of you’,” recalled Bruni.
Although she received a lot of great advice from a mentor at Lakeview Demolition who encouraged her to trade in her dump truck for a roll-off truck (one that carries and delivers dumpsters), it took her almost two years to be taken seriously as a woman. As a result of being awarded a major job for Xavier University, she bought some heavy-duty equipment from Volvo, painted it pink and was invited by the company to The World Demolition Summit in Amsterdam in 2010. She was the only woman in the demolition business there and, although it was a great honor, she admitted that she felt a bit intimidated. “These are people who are imploding prisons, blowing down nuclear stacks, doing archeological digs in Austria which is painstaking and I show up with a pink tutu and say that I’m pulling up slabs in Chalmette, Louisiana!” joked Bruni.
Bruni took her experience in Amsterdam and made the most of it despite some negative words from prominent people in the construction business. “I could name some major corporate players that gave me a slap on the back and said ‘good luck kid’ but I kept my nose to the grind and just kept working; the job will speak for itself,” said Bruni. “I wanted to be taken seriously and to do things the right way, the best way, the honorable way. I wanted to be a builder and a giver in the community. I think that really came through when people recognized I was in this not only because I was passionate about the city, but passionate [enough] to follow the rules of the game. So we tried to keep our bids competitive…I came in less expensive than bigger companies because I didn’t have the overhead and we ran our jobs leaner.”
Another big break came when she was hired to work on Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward. “Brad Pitt hired me for MIR and that was a huge focus in 2008,” said Bruni. “At that point I already had my equipment. Once I got key jobs like that and Xavier, I parked my pink excavator there on I-10 so everyone could see it when they drove by and I actually didn’t put it to work. I put it out on the MIR site and that’s when I really started to get the respect of the community.”
Due to storms like Isaac, Bruni reaps the rewards with a spike in revenue but also notes that there is an empathetic, personal side to her business. “The female perspective to this is that people want to talk about their property; it’s the most intimate investment that you have and whether it’s their home or business, they want to talk to us,” said Bruni. “It’s a divorce. It’s blight. I can’t tell you how many adult children we’re dealing with. They say that it is ‘their parent’s home and that they can’t make this decision.’ Behind every demolition is an emotion and that’s what I have brought to the table—that female aspect of emotion.”
These days, Bruni has a small staff and many subcontractors that are mostly men, all of which are honored to don the grey and pink shirts with the Demo Diva logo on it. “What tickles everybody is that it's a personification of us, the people of New Orleans. It’s like, we did this…the underdogs pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and Demo Diva was built in the community, by the community and for the community,” boasted Bruni. “What was just meant to be a targeted-for-women business became one that serviced an entire devastated community and while we’re no longer devastated, we’ve emerged. “