The AEC and environmental consulting industries have long attracted people who are passionate about what they do and driven by a sense of mission. In all the years that we’ve been publishing The Friedman File, we’ve shared many successful strategies that are based in part in that dedication. It’s a large part of why this newsletter exists.

In this issue, we’re highlighting a firm— Mazzetti+GBA (San Francisco, CA)— that is taking that passion to another level. Over the past 5 years, this 200-person MEP engineering and technology consulting firm has integrated its commitment to create a better world into its business practices and firm-wide culture by becoming a Benefit Corporation.

Benefit Corporations blend the structure and tax liability of a C-Corporation with the mission ethos and transparent reporting of a non-profit organization. They’re relatively new and are few and far between in this industry. That was part of the appeal for Mazzetti.

Benefit Corps. essentially set their own bar in what they commit to and how they will report their activities. As a Benefit Corp. committed to creating societal and environmental benefit, Mazzetti reports on its activities in areas ranging from gender equality and employee wellness, to environmental sustainability, to community and global health initiatives.

It’s a forward-thinking move when you consider that the employees who are driving today’s workforce overwhelmingly value purpose and corporate social initiatives. Deloitte estimates millennials will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. According to The Millennial Project survey, 77% of millennials surveyed say their company’s purpose is part of why they choose to work there.

While Mazzetti CEO Walt Vernon was hopeful that an employee-owned Benefit Corp. would inspire younger workers, the motivation was also deeply rooted in the firm’s values of Earn Trust, Team First, Innovate, and Inspire. As the driver behind the move (it took the firm two years to commit to becoming a Benefit Corp.), Vernon’s personal sense of mission was also a major factor.

“Mazzetti retains me largely because we are a Benefit Corporation,” he says. “I invest an enormous amount of time and energy into making Mazzetti better. I do it because we are a Benefit Corporation, and we are doing something more than just making money. When I hang up my boots at the end of my career, I want to know that our little team made a difference in the world. Not having this vision would quickly exhaust and depress me. Having this vision continually renews me.”

Using their powers for good

One of the firm’s largest Benefit Corp. activities is the creation and support of The Sextant Foundation, a 501(c)3 charitable organization founded to focus on international development projects. Vernon created Sextant to build critical clean water and clean energy infrastructure in limited resource settings after participating in a disaster response trip to Haiti with Project HOPE. Its work now spans the globe— from the hurricane-battered Caribbean to the Philippines to Sierra Leone.

At first, project capital came from Mazzetti, which still covers 100% of the organization’s overhead and administration. Today, funding is sourced from project partners, and a diverse board is strategically created to build relationships. A current project in Sierra Leone, for example, was supported jointly by UNICEF, the Ministry of Health, Sextant and Project HOPE. Sextant pursues grant funding, solicits in-kind donations related to specific project needs and fundraises for volunteer expenses through its web site, social media, partners and professional organizations— even word-of-mouth from enthusiastic Mazzetti employees.

“Sextant is bringing health to people around the world through clean energy and water,” says Executive Director Shannon Bunsen, also Mazzetti’s Sustainability Project Manager. “We are small, and everything we accomplish is remarkable because it is collaborative.”

While not all volunteers are Mazzetti employees, the Foundation offers a unique opportunity for employees to do international service work; internal calls for volunteers receive a strong response. However, their own workload comes first, so approval from team leaders and support from their team is required to take on a 5-10-day volunteer assignment.

“We’ve heard from employees, especially our younger employees, that Sextant is the reason they wanted to work here,” says Bunsen, adding that employees also offer to help with planning, marketing and fundraising. “It has certainly been a huge value-add for Mazzetti’s recruiting. The service culture here is strong, and it’s driven from the top down.”

Employees also volunteer with other organizations, including MASS Design Group and Engineers Without Borders. The firm itself has performed pro bono and discounted work for meaningful causes with limited resources, from Alabama to Rwanda, and partners locally with GRID Alternatives, an organization that helps low-resource families save on energy costs through solar installation. Local offices are encouraged to volunteer within their communities and have organized fundraising for California fire victims and ALS research among other causes.

Tackling the gender gap

Another major Benefit Corp. initiative is tackling the engineering industry’s notorious gender gap. The firm is committed as a signee to the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP), a collaboration between United Nations (UN) Women and the UN Global Compact, which provides guidance on empowering women at work and in their communities.

So far, they’ve steadily grown the number of billable and non-billable female staff and supported scholarships for women engineers. This year, the firm is focused on access to quality health services, paid maternity and paternity leave, professional development for female employees, and ensuring that their external and community interactions reflect the internal commitment to gender equality.

The firm is also tracking and reporting on its commitment to employee wellness and employee ownership (more than 50% currently own stock). Company-wide sustainability practices and other activities in support of the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact are also reported. Every office has achieved or is pursuing Green Business certification.

Mazzetti doesn’t track data to connect employee engagement and retention to the Benefit Corporation. However, Vernon receives positive feedback about the company’s Benefit Corp. activities when he blogs about them, during exit interviews, and during his annual “Thanksgiving exercise.”

“In November, when we are starting to build business plans and budgets, I ask people to tell me three things they are thankful for and three things they would be thankful to change,” he says. “We use this feedback to try to make Mazzetti better, by doing more of what people like and less of what people don’t like. A high percentage of the comments I get back express pride in our Benefit Corporation work.”

Bunsen cites herself as an example. Recruited by Vernon after winning an ASHE Energy to Care Award for her work at University of Wisconsin Health, she remains excited by the firm’s commitment to women and by the opportunity to combine two life goals— managing a nonprofit and sustainability consulting— into one rewarding role.

“Mazzetti appeals to and hires the type of person who wants to change the world for the better,” she says. In fact, she says, it can be hard to track and report on Benefit Corp. activities because they are so embedded into the firm’s culture and operations.

Benefiting all

Yet, the response from clients has been more muted— at least so far.

“Being a Benefit Corporation has had less of an impact than I had hoped,” says Vernon. “Because a large number of our clients are in the healthcare space, and because a large number of healthcare organizations are not-for-profit, I hypothesized that our conversion to a Benefit Corporation would appeal to them. I’m unsure how true this is yet. Though we realize our clients are pressured to manage costs, as we are, we strive to attract clients and partners who share in this greater mission and want to do great things together.”

Providing client value is part of the Benefit Corp. equation. The firm is now working to build wider awareness of its Benefit Corp. activities, including those that directly impact clients, says Bunsen. Currently, Mazzetti is exploring offering healthcare owners carbon credits through The Sextant Foundation’s work, allowing them to achieve their sustainability objectives while impacting healthcare-related initiatives. And the firm is continually reverse engineering innovative solutions for clients that stem from what they’ve learned on limited resource projects overseas.

They’re developing free online tools to help healthcare clients simplify the energy benchmarking process and calculate the environmental footprint of medical waste treatment options. And they’re heavily involved in collaborative research projects— from improving building codes and designs to measuring the energy consumption of medical equipment at a California healthcare system. In addition, Mazzetti is working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories on the US-India Energy Alliance, with the California Energy Commission on healthcare energy reduction, and is sponsoring student research teams at three universities as part of the Society of Women Engineers.

“Knowing there is a higher purpose, working together to accomplish it and celebrating it, both to ourselves and to our communities— I hope that inspires our people and those around us,” says Vernon.

Where does corporate responsibility intersect with your firm’s business strategy? Let me know at or (508) 276-1101.