Talk About It
Point/Counterpoint: Minority-Owned Businesses
Among the most visible ways that social inequity has been addressed in the construction sector has been the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program. Originally administered by the United States Department of Transportation, it allocates a percentage of dollars for services to be rendered by DBEs for all kinds of infrastructure projects. The standards and goals are set by each state, which certifies eligible companies that are at least 51% owned, managed, and controlled by women or individuals belonging to a disadvantaged minority group. The intent is to economically empower disadvantaged groups by nurturing the expansion of minority and women-owned businesses using the government’s considerable financial resources.
To learn what it's like to work with the DBE program, Julien Meyrat, AIA recently interviewed Myriam Camargo, FAIA. The Colombian-born architect is the founding partner of Dallas-based CaCo Architecture LLC. Through this interview she shares her firm's experience as a participant in the DBE program, detailing its benefits and challenges.
It is traditionally argued that establishing DBEs helps level the playing field. Has your firm achieved its current level of success thanks to the DBE program, or would it have been better off without it?
Since we are certified—a decision made early on because of my belief we could go either way—it is hard to say if we would have been better off without it. Undoubtedly, regardless of DBE certification, business is done with people who know you. Without relationships or having an extensive portfolio to illustrate “proven experience,” the DBE certification is often a double-edged sword. There is a perception that DBEs are less qualified, or worse, not qualified at all, and therefore a necessary evil. Clearly, there are no social opportunity advantages for DBEs. We have diligently pursued opportunities and been successful with various agencies which have “Good Faith Effort” participation goals: City of Dallas, Dallas County Community College District, and Dallas Independent School District. [In this context, “Good Faith” means the agencies and institutions have set goals for potential bidders/offerors to include participation by MWBEs to the greatest extent possible.] It has taken many years of building up a portfolio to demonstrate our capabilities and prove we are competent and qualified. We have also paid our dues—taking on small, difficult projects despite fee deficits. Additionally, we have pursued a few other agencies that tout robust MBE programs without much success, even after 30 years of practice. Financially, many of these public commissions have to be subsidized by other project types in our firm. However, the opportunities to work on meaningful projects and/or projects with high profile are worth the financial risk. The price of admission is worth it.
Given its complicated application and certification process and the program’s specific limitations on its participants, is it worth registering one’s firm as a DBE/MBE?
It depends on what types of projects one is interested in pursuing. To practice in the residential architecture and private sector realms, it makes no sense. It is an involved process which takes time and requires one to be open and transparent about one’s business. You must be prepared to be scrutinized and have all of what is normally a business’ private information available for public consumption. It is a long-term investment proposition, one in which a payoff is not guaranteed and often indiscernible. In my opinion, it is just one tool in a myriad of tools required to succeed in our profession. It costs money (RFQ/RFP/interview process) to get into the stadium. Qualifying is just one of many steps in the process of this high stakes game—the competition is stiff and the referees are not always fair.
The practice of engaging DBEs on construction projects funded by the government is often understood within the context of contractors. How are architecture firms involved? Are they hired as sub-consultants to lead design consultants?
A major drawback in becoming a certified DBE is often being marginalized—to only be involved in a secondary role as a sub-consultant which automatically predisposes decision-makers to the mindset of relegating DBE participation to a subservient role. Architecture firms seldom hire the competition. Therefore, unless there is a requirement for participation, there is no incentive whatsoever to bring a competing architecture firm onto the team, particularly when the engineering component gives prime firms the opportunity to fulfill the percentage participation goals. When hired as a sub-consultant, DBEs have very little leverage. However, there are exceptions. Our firm has been fortunate in past collaboration opportunities to significantly contribute as a sub-consultant. Financially, from our experience, it only makes sense as the prime to partner with another architecture firm when the project budget exceeds the $15 million mark and there is an additional incentive for the prime firm to do so (i.e. the DBE offers local presence, specific project experience, unique service offering, etc.).
Beyond the program’s initial intentions, are there any long-term benefits to being a DBE? Any unforeseen disadvantages?
Advantages: Expectations are low, therefore, when one is able to perform and deliver, then one can enjoy the benefits of having a good reputation and being sought out to participate and/or be a team member.
Disadvantages: I’m not sure that it allows for a true level playing field. As a prime, when a DBE firm is finally able to get a foot in the door, it is required to meet the same participation goals as a majority firm. Depending on the project type, size, etc., the firm may have to give away a portion of the work to a competing firm because the participation goals may not be met through services of other consultants. Therefore, it sometimes hinders and limits the opportunities for the DBEs as well, and may even put them at greater financial risk. There is also a perception that “set-asides” go to small, less qualified firms that benefit from the financial gain without having the skill to do the work.
Women and minorities are significantly under-represented among architects. Is achieving racial and gender parity essential to long-term sustainability of the architectural profession? If so, is the favoring of DBEs for tax-funded projects critical to this goal? Would you favor other solutions?
The profession faces many challenges. I believe that racial and gender equality can only be accomplished through access to quality education programs and early mentoring. There is no favoring of DBEs—I want this fact to be made very clear. From my own experience, we must compete even after we have won or earned the commission, and even then, if the powers that be so decide, you may find yourself thrown out of the game even before the kickoff.
Other possible options would be to provide incentives to firms (i.e. additional points on scoring of submittals) for contractual commitments to mentor young interns and to provide them with a clear professional path. Another incentive could be to provide in-house development programs for management/leadership roles across the board with specific success goal requirements.
Your career testifies to your commitment of designing projects on behalf of the underprivileged. Is it more important to achieve social equity within our own professional ranks or for the public to whom our designs are accountable?
As architects, we can reach so many more people and make a difference in the quality of their lives when we are committed to creating thoughtful and beautiful environments for those who are less fortunate. Dignity, inspiration, and hope change lives. In my opinion achieving social equity within our ranks is secondary, though an important second. Whether we acknowledge it or not, architects serve as role models for other professionals. We should embrace this role and expand our influence. Achieving equity will benefit our profession, allowing architects with various backgrounds and/or cultural experiences to enrich and infuse architecture authentically.
Julien Meyrat, AIA is a senior designer at Gensler.