Once you meet Orson Horchler, you will instantly want to get to know him better. A carpenter, visual artist, musician and small-business owner, Orson classifies his construction company, Bondeko, as a social enterprise—hiring, training and mentoring “new Mainers.”
His mentoring is as diversified as his talents. On a typical day, balancing a schedule of both construction sites and music gigs, he’ll help one of his crew draft a particularly tricky email, while helping another find an apartment—whatever it takes for his team to be successful in this new country. Orson is also a TEDx talk presenter, speaking in his knowledgeable and lighthearted way about building an intercultural team.
Orson, please tell us a little about your background and how you came to live and work in Maine?
I was born in Philadelphia, but I had my first birthday in Ellsworth, Maine, when my parents moved here. My dad was a refugee from Hungary who came to the U.S. as a teenager. My mom, who was born in Morocco and moved to France at 10 or 11, also came to the U.S. on a work visa. I lived in Ellsworth until about the age of 3. That’s when my mom moved back to Paris and took me along. I grew up mostly in France, in the suburbs of Paris. I missed my dad and Maine very much.
One summer in Paris, when I was 14, I sold dresses in a pretty rough part of the city. With the money I made, I ran from home and hitchhiked to the harbor of Nantes. I tried to get a job on a cargo ship headed to America. It’s probably a good thing nobody wanted to hire me as a sailor. Finally, at 18, my dad bought me a one-way ticket to the promised land. I moved around the U.S. for a few years, to New Orleans and New York City. Eventually I had my son here in Maine so I stayed. You could say I have always been drawn to Maine by the men in my life.
When did you start Bondeko? What does Bondeko mean?
I started my construction business in 2011 under a different name when I lived in Bangor. After I moved to Portland and redefined my business as a social enterprise, I renamed it Bondeko. Bondeko is a word in Lingala, a language from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that means the feeling of being family with people who are not your blood relatives. Lingala is now one of the primary languages spoken in Portland, and I have been learning Lingala for the past four years and sometimes speak it with my crew. It took me about a year of speaking Lingala before I learned that word, and when I did, I immediately knew it would be the name for our company! It defines how we operate as a crew and often the way we create bonds with our clients.
Can you describe a typical workday?
There is no typical workday! But I would say that on average my days include:
- An hour and a half of driving (if alone, I am often listening to business or self-improvement podcasts).
- Four hours of working on-site with my hands.
- One hour of meetings and checking out new jobs.
- One hour focused on teaching one of my workers new skills.
- Half an hour of shopping for materials.
- Half an hour of helping my crew with non-work-related issues—for example, reading mail, explaining legal documents, filling out an application for a community garden spot, driving to doctor appointments.
- In the evenings, I am often emailing clients, working on estimates or invoices, or researching some opportunities for my workers.
- Time talking with one of my immigrant-business mentorees, to help with an estimate, give advice on how to best communicate with a client on an issue and even conflict resolution.
Oh and also, our workdays start at 9:00. I don’t know why the hell construction workers in Maine insist on starting their workday at 7. That’s crazy! And no client wants to hear the sound of a compressor that early in the morning.
Central to your business model is to hire “new Mainers” to work on your team. Why is that important to you and to your business?
It’s a mission that is very important to me. I myself am a “double immigrant,” having migrated twice—first to France and then back to the U.S. So I understand and have experienced intense and sometimes even violent xenophobia. There were some very lonely years with no community. When I came to Portland, I finally met a ton of other people from around the world and found a community of other Francophones. That’s when I decided to build a construction business around the idea of hiring new Mainers.
At first it was simply because these were the people I enjoyed being around. We felt comfortable together and shared the experience of migration. We had the common bond of struggling every day to understand the local culture.
Soon I realized, though, that my motivations ran deeper. Hiring people who have even greater barriers to employment in construction than I do—because of race, gender, language fluency—was my way of combatting xenophobia and racism. Watching these men and women on my team thrive in this industry has been extremely satisfying!
I have come to believe that, when wronged, one of the best ways to heal is empowering yourself to make sure others never have to live through the negative experiences you had to.
What are the upsides and the downsides of working with a diverse team?
The upsides are:
- There is never a boring day!
- We laugh a lot as we marvel at each other’s cultural differences.
- Speaking several languages throughout a working day and learning new ones.
- We get to travel while at work! I gain intimate knowledge of the specific cultures my workers come from.
- Finally, I have hired workers from 11 different countries and they all have one thing in common: incredible work ethic!
The more complicated aspects are:
- We all have completely different notions of how to communicate and, culturally, how to show respect, so that can lead to conflicts between us.
- I have one worker in particular with whom I only share 12 words in common, and he is having a very hard time learning English. He is an experienced carpenter, so he often assumes he knows what I want him to do… but he doesn’t always. If I’m not on site, he could cut $500 of boards in the wrong direction. I have lost thousands of dollars in materials that way. It can be very frustrating. And at the same time, he is more skilled and works a lot harder than anyone I have ever hired, so he’s still worth it.
- We’re all here with no or very little family, so we rely on each other a lot. It’s nice because we really show up for each other when we are having personal problems. But it also means that our interactions have an added dimension. Our opinions of each other matter a lot. If, for example, I express dissatisfaction at a worker’s performance, it’s not just the boss speaking, it comes with the weight of a criticism you would get from a family member, a brother or an uncle... and that adds drama to our professional interactions.
Do you or your team experience racism, subtle or not so subtle? If yes, what are some ways you’ve handled this?
More than once, neighbors have called the police on one of my workers because he got to the job early and was parked on the street, waiting in his car while Black.
I’ve also been targeted for being perceived as Middle Eastern after 9/11. I was assaulted by a co-worker who thought I was a “terrorist.” It’s definitely shaped my world view and made me very protective of my crew.
We are confronted by our own racism on the team. It’s daily work we all undertake, and it’s complex because we have to accept that we have different notions of what racism is in the first place! My Black African workers, for example, always talk about the violence of the “racism” they experience from other black Africans from different countries or ethnic groups.
And though I’ve tried, it’s hard for non-immigrants to join our team. In my experience, many Americans are not used to deferring to or even respecting other world views, especially if those world views are from people of color who come from “Third World countries.” So when I’ve hired American workers, they are often uncomfortable or try to tell their foreign co-workers what racism really means… Let that sink in… This erasure of experience is why we function better as an all-foreigner crew. We are a safe space… but one where we can make each other very uncomfortable and that’s OK!
Since I am the leader of the crew, employer and mentor, I have to be extra aware of my own biases when interacting with my crew and the members of my community, who I mentor. Having grown up in France, I have the baggage of colonialism, which is still deep-rooted in the French educational system. The idea that French cultural values are superior to that of other cultures, especially non-Western cultures, is still something I carry with me in spite of myself. I have to dismantle my own cultural-superiority complex but at the same time, I do have the responsibility to teach them “proper” Western workplace behaviors. It's a very tricky balance to keep, but it's essential so that if they leave Bondeko, they will have the cultural awareness of how things work in the States and a good chance of being hired.
Contractors are in great demand right now. Do you feel like you can be choosy about what projects you take on? What makes you say yes to a project, or no?
Yes! Finally. For years, we had to take whatever came our way. Now the first thing I do is make sure it’s a job we are equipped to handle. That means either we will be using materials and techniques we have expertise in, or a job that offers a challenge that makes the job exciting. We often get calls to fix tricky carpentry or tile projects after the original contractor gave up… We love problem solving.
It’s also been really nice to be able to turn down jobs when I have felt like the chemistry with the potential client was off. We are blessed with great client relationships now. It reduces my stress levels significantly. And it makes a huge difference for the morale of the team. So we want to make sure we like the people we work for and, in the end, the relationships we build with our clients are priceless to us.
It also helps that more people know about our company as a social enterprise. That means that most of the people who are reaching out to us now know or are supportive of our mission.
What colors, textures, forms do you enjoy working with, and why? What influences your aesthetic?
Personally, I really like using reclaimed lumber. We have done a lot of beautiful work with it. My crew doesn’t always understand, though, and every time we do a job with reclaimed lumber, somebody on the crew reminds me that in their country that’s the wood nobody wants… My crew members tend to be impressed with materials like PVC trim that they can’t get in their home countries. The one thing we all agree on is that we all love working with tile!
I have some working principles when I design spaces. For instance, I believe that whatever material we use, should look like what it is. A wooden cabinet door, for example, should not be sprayed so thick with enamel that you can’t tell if it’s plastic or MDF [medium-density fiberboard]. I believe certain rooms should have cool colors and others warm colors, depending on their function… Stuff like that.
But overall, I’m not in this to make artistic statements. I already have a variety of artistic outlets outside of work. Rather, I pride myself on my ability to understand what the client’s aesthetic is. After I start working with them, I am often able to suggest an idea they had not thought of but really love! Your home is a sacred space just for you. My success is measured by how good you feel in it after we are done… I don’t let my ego or artistic opinions get in the way of that.
In addition to being a contractor and business owner, you’re also a street artist and musician. Can you describe how these passions overlap?
I am a member of a band that I created, also called Bondeko! I play with my co-workers, and you might think it’s weird to have the same name for the construction company and the band but it’s actually really nice because we have the company letters on our truck. So when we show up at a festival or venue to play, people think we are a really big act since we have a truck with our band name on it!
With the band, we do a lot of the same stuff that we do at work: We’re all from different countries and very different musical cultures, and we come together to marvel and get excited about what we each bring to the table. It’s challenging, but it forces us to constantly grow as musicians and never get stuck.
My street art is all about belonging, questioning xenophobia and how attitudes, institutions and people may tell us we don’t belong in the very place we live. With my Mainer project, I have created educational programs around belonging, worked with a number of public schools and organizations (from the Maine Historical Society to the attorney general) to create exhibits, host speaking engagements and offer trainings confronting xenophobia in Maine.
I am also a consultant on intercultural leadership and an avid public speaker on the subject. In 2018, I did a TEDx presentation: Beyond Xenophobia: Building the Intercultural Team.
As a small-business owner, your responsibilities are many—from accounting to researching and buying materials to managing your crew. And no one is offering you a paid vacation, right? What do you wish people knew about being a business owner that they probably don’t know?
The workweek is very long as a business owner. And in spite of entrepreneurship being heralded as a core value in this country, you are often left alone with no support.
Health insurance is a huge problem. Small-business owners drive a large part of the economy of this state, but so many of us fall between the cracks. You most likely make too much on paper to get any subsidies, but realistically you don’t make enough to afford the insanely high premiums of the so-called Affordable Care Act. Add to that the fact that if you get sick, it’s not just you who can’t work. It’s all your employees because the company is too small to run without you… you wear too many hats.
Having your own business affords you a lot of freedom, to choose your co-workers and potentially build a decent income, but being the owner of the business also means you can fall harder than anyone else. A couple summers ago I had two jobs that I drastically underbid. I couldn’t pay myself for about 10 weeks and had to take money out of my personal accounts to pay suppliers and employees. I could have declared bankruptcy, I guess, but I’m stubborn. Anyway, that summer, I had to take myself off payroll and just pay myself in tiny increments whenever I could.
When COVID hit, I was technically self-employed. I did the responsible thing and stopped our operations for two months so we would not be going into people’s homes. I was doing what the State was encouraging us to do. And the State also promised to extend unemployment benefits to self-employed individuals. So I applied but got systematically denied… without any explanation. And we were denied a PPP loan as well. No explanation for that either…
Finally, I did a GoFundMe and was able to raise a few thousand dollars to pay myself, our recurring expenses and subcontractors who also were denied benefits. Thank goodness the community showed up for us!
You’re a single dad to a teenage boy. What do you hope your son learns from your example?
Oh, I don’t know about being an example for him… But my son has played with our band off and on for a couple years now and he started working carpentry with us this summer. I love having him immersed in the life of our team. With our crew, he gets to practice intercultural communication, switch between two languages all day, learn to communicate with a worker who only shares about 20 words in common with him, share space and power with POCs [people of color] and navigate dealing with four older men from completely different cultures and values, who are all trying to mentor him at the same time! I feel really good about offering him that experience. He learns to “do the work.”
What does it mean to you to “belong”?
In a multicultural society, community, school or workplace, belonging means that you are free to express your culture to others no matter how shocking it may be to them. And it also means you listen to others express their cultures. You take it in even when it’s offensive to you. Belonging is an active state, not a final destination. It requires a group of people who are receptive to your identity and where no single culture dominates. And it requires you to be equally receptive to others. As you actively work on belonging, something beautiful happens where you all get to influence each other and you become a unique human being.
What is your favorite place in Maine? How about favorite food?
Favorite place always changes. But right now, we are doing a job on Kettle Cove and I love it there! It looks different every day, every hour of the day! I was just there today and the fog rolled in around 4pm and it was so dreamy…
Food changes all the time too. My son and I get obsessed with something for a while and then switch to the next thing. The first two years in Portland, we ate pho twice a week at least. There are so many good options for Vietnamese in Portland. Also, at the houses of my Congolese connections, I fell madly in love with a dish called pondu—boiled cassava leaves with salty fish and onions. One of my workers taught me how to make it, but I never make it on my own—if you don’t do it right, you can get cyanide poisoning if the cassava leaves are not correctly detoxified!
Then we got addicted to the fried yuca at Luis’ Venezuelan restaurant. The whole Bondeko crew got hooked, and they had me stop every time we drove by, which was every day for about four months. I also love the basil duck at Thai Siam, tacos de lengua at Tu Casa, and the fish masala at Hi Bombay is insane! We are blessed with so much amazing food here in Portland, thanks to all our immigrant communities.
. . .
From the team:
Leo Horchler, son, age 16
What are you learning from your dad and his work?
I’ve learned skills necessary for construction and building, and I’ve also learned to work with people who have different cultures and speak different languages, people who might only know about 20 words of English. If I ever try something new, I’m still incredibly grateful for the time I’ve put into this group he’s created. It’s not always common to be talking to someone from Albania, Africa and the Caribbean islands on a regular basis for a job. It’s very, very cool. It begins to feel like a micro family. Sometimes you do your own thing, but people are always watching over you and helping you.
. . .
Beyond the job itself, are there ways that working for Bondeko has helped you?
Gael Taty, Republic of Congo, age 29:
While working for Orson, he always told me I had what it took to be a leader and start my own company. When I started G Painting and Services, Orson helped me learn accounting, estimating, how to communicate with American clients and be an effective boss. Today, Orson still mentors me. Sometimes when we get bigger jobs that need expertise in carpentry, I hire Bondeko as a subcontractor and it feels great to now be able to give back!
Namory Keita, Guinea, age 40:
Bondeko has helped me with the so many things. Working for Orson, I’ve been able to provide for the many family members I am responsible for back home. It’s even allowed me to send money back to Guinea to build a music school in my hometown.
Now Bondeko is helping me bring my children to the U.S. I am so grateful for that because I live alone here in this country, and I really miss my children.
Also, I am a West African drummer. It’s been really helpful to work for another artist. Most of the crew are artists too. Orson allows me a very flexible schedule so I can teach my drumming classes every week and travel regularly for my music. At Bondeko, I get to spend time with other musicians, and sometimes on the weekends, we play music together or just hang out to get coffee. The crew at Bondeko is very creative. At work we joke, we laugh, we sing and then we smile at each other. That is the greatest thing for me!