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Building industry diversity: 5 ways to empower disadvantaged business enterprise firms

November 19, 2020

By Carla Artis

A program to support diverse service providers leads to greater success on projects and in our industry

Building diversity into the project supply chain is a powerful engine for economic growth. And diverse knowledge leads to more positive project outcomes.

Government agencies are increasingly asking for the inclusion of disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) as part of the proposal process. This represents significant progress in advancing diversity within the AE industry, encouraging the growth of both individual talent and minority-led firms.

As a leader in the AE industry, it’s our responsibility to develop the programs that not only meet those RFP requirements but ensure the success of DBE firms, giving them the opportunity to succeed, grow, and thrive. Empowering DBEs is so much more than a line item on a proposal—it builds skilled capacity over the long term and ultimately benefits the entire industry and the communities in which we work.

Female colleagues of the Red and Purple Modernization Program in Chicago (including Chicago Transit Authority, Walsh-Fluor, and Stantec) break ground on the project. 

Here are five key elements of any program designed to empower DBEs:

1. Community engagement and stakeholder management

Building strong relationships begins with an inclusive approach within the community around the project. That means starting day one with a local focus on resource and capacity-building and accessing the talent within a community.

Outreach efforts should be structured to maximize networking and roadshow events with existing DBE firms. Upon notice of award, work with your DBE partners to host a design outreach event that coincides with the design development schedule.

Project design should be reflective of the environment, with a quality product that meets the needs of the community. Integrating local talent into the project team helps access the local perspective that makes that a reality.

When construction kicked off on the Long Island Rail Road Expansion Project, we coordinated a job fair with local colleges, the Department of Labor, the county, and local community groups to access talent for our DBE subconsultant. Interviews were conducted on the spot and advanced to the project team for next level candidates. This resulted in a more local, well-rounded team.

Author Carla Artis addresses a group of DBEs at an outreach event in the community.

2. Proposal development

A successful program involves DBE partners in all phases of an opportunity from proposal development through project award and closeout. This is more than just checking a box. The collaborative nature of this approach helps ensure all consultants understand the depth of their scope, have the required resources, and have priced their scope appropriately. When consultants are engaged at the onset of a project, they are better prepared and equipped for the project award, contract negotiations, and mobilization.

For example, when we move through this process, we sit down as a group and break down the scope into actionable pieces for each of our DBE partners. We then go through each of their scopes to ensure they understand the resources required for each discipline. We also make sure they understand the need to fully account for all billable activities to avoid missing out on revenue.

Building strong relationships begins with an inclusive approach within the community around the project.

3. Mentor-protégé program

Maintain a commitment to the ongoing development of small businesses and emerging firms. We believe that one of the best ways to provide support is through a structured program that provides benchmarks and consistent feedback such as a mentor-protégé program. This provides excellent opportunities for larger prime consultants to mentor small and emerging businesses, creating a legacy of firms that will make a notable footprint on the local economy long after the conclusion of a project.

Another way to demonstrate commitment to the community is through an internship program. By hiring college seniors to work as interns over the summer, we help them learn the ropes in the industry, develop local talent, and we might even be able to extend an offer for permanent employment.

For Phase One of the Red and Purple Modernization Program in Chicago, we worked with the Walsh-Fluor Design Build Team to bring on Lakeshore Engineering, a certified DBE/MBE design consulting firm, in a mentor-protégé role on the project. This role helped to elevate the small firm’s visibility in the consulting community and build their portfolio. Additionally, we hired 11 high school and college students to serve as summer interns on the project, helping open the door to a career in design engineering.

4. Compliance monitoring and reporting

Demonstrating success while meeting or exceeding the project’s participation goals is critical to understanding how well a program is working. Create the necessary infrastructure to monitor, track, and create detailed documentation and systematic reporting to make certain project compliance is met. These practices flow down to all tiers of the project.

For one project, our New York office had to meet challenges head-on to make sure we met the lofty project goals. As the project began to ramp down, we had to rethink our approach to meeting our goals, utilizing both internal and external resources. By creating a roadmap to success, we were able to identify major roadblocks and adjust course to address them. We identified several scopes of work our Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) partners could lead and support. We also created a mentor-protégé program that teamed our staff with one of our DBE partners. This scope oversight enabled our team to manage and teach our DBE partner—and their staff—another skillset, while allowing us to meet our goal to build our partners’ portfolio.

Stantec hosted a Small Business Forum in our Chicago office. Attendees are representative from Chicago Transit Authority, Stantec, Walsh-Flour, and Zann Inc. 

5. Support services

Small businesses face many common barriers. Consequently, it’s important to provide technical assistance, financial guidance, and supportive services to subconsultants through the duration of the project. This can take the form of capacity and resource building, utilizing consultants within the project footprint (as covered above), and simply offering consultants flexibility, not a one-size-fits-all approach.

When COVID-19 hit North America, it put immense pressure on everyone, including our DBE consultants. We worked with our partners on major projects to adjust scheduling and workload, while staying flexible in our approach so they could meet their critical daily needs, like payroll. A program with a strong foundation helps meet unexpected challenges and maintains the structure to realize multiple goals.

Facing new challenges and increasing diversity

We are still developing and improving our DBE programs, but we’ve learned a lot and have managed to teach a lot as well. We will continue to face new challenges and meet new goals. What’s constant is our commitment to the success of our DBE partners and increasing the diversity and strength of our industry.

  • Carla Artis

    As director, diversity and compliance, Carla’s team provides resources to internal project teams and their consultants to ensure they comply with the required participation goals and thrive in the industry.

    Contact Carla
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