Policies promoting equal opportunity have long been standard in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry, but putting these policies into practice is not as common. In this installment of The Friedman File, we examine how three firms elevated the spirit of equal opportunity into actions delivering tangible benefits.

A “Chance” Meeting

Three years ago, Al Spagnolo and Troy Depeiza were among a handful of architects competing for a project. Neither won. And both did.

Their chance meeting sparked a friendship and formal partnership that underscores the concepts on which the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) movement is based. Spagnolo’s multidiscipline design firm, SGA, is renowned for its work in life sciences and higher education. It celebrated its 30th Anniversary in January. Depeiza founded DREAM Collaborative, LLC, in 2008 with fellow Caribbean-born architect Greg Minott, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the workload allowed them to devote their full professional energies to the firm.

“I’ve always felt that I could do more to promote minority firms, firms of color,” says Spagnolo. “Very little has been done throughout our profession, and that’s part of what compelled me to reach out to Troy.”

When the two men met, DREAM Collaborative was growing and looking for new opportunities, including more work leveraging Depeiza’s extensive background in Science and Technology. “I’ve always felt that Black architects are too often relegated to doing only public work,” Spagnolo adds. “They’re not being promoted in the architecture profession. Troy and I think that our friendship is divine intervention. We’re changing what we can. Two firms, sharing knowledge and technology, trusting one another.”

The relationship clicked personally over lunch, and both saw the professional advantages of working together. An informal agreement to try to find opportunities to collaborate has evolved into a formal joint venture agreement for the Boston-based firms. Now, when clients hire SGA, they get DREAM Collaborative as well.

This is a Business Deal

Depeiza notes that professional ability underpins the partnership. “This is a business experience,” he says. “It’s not ‘Let’s help the Black firm.’ Al is a nice guy. His firm has tremendous expertise and they do large projects. We have expertise, too. We’re both men of faith. Our ethos is the same. We’re both on the same wavelength in how to do business.”

Architecture remains a white-male-dominated profession – over three-quarters of the 94,000 members of the American Institute of Architects are men, and more than four of every five who report a race are white. The demographics are changing, however. The National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB) reports that nearly half of all enrolled students and graduates from NAAB-accredited architecture programs are women. Among AIA members reporting a race, minority members grew from 14.4% in 2012 to 19.7% in 2020.

For 20-person DREAM Collaborative, the partnership with 115-person SGA has led to new project opportunities that have fostered continued growth. The partnership expands both teams’ capacities for more focused, collaborative and innovative work.

Minority-run firms are frequently brought onto projects to satisfy disadvantaged firm participation requirements, often receiving a minimal percentage of design fees. DREAM and SGA operate as equal partners, with compensation commensurate to contribution. “Even though we have all this expertise and technology, we were never afforded the opportunity on large projects like the ones we do with SGA. Someone has to open that door. It has really impacted DREAM Collaborative tremendously. Our partnerships in science have helped us significantly scale our business.”

Spagnolo is quick to note that the benefits run both ways. “They’re bringing expertise and additional resources to our assignments,” he says. “They’re actively engaging with our clients, contributing value to the whole project delivery process. It has added to my understanding of what Troy and Greg had to do to build a firm, the challenges they faced. And we’re a better firm because of it. We’re more aware, more willing to be a contributing partner. There are so many benefits to our firm. Just the joy of working with them. They’re creative and they’re fun.”

DEI in Practice

With DEI a hot topic in all industries today, Spagnolo emphasizes the importance of action over well-meaning written policies that change little. “I have a lot of young staff, and if you’re going to discuss DEI, you have to be an active participant,” he says. “You have to be part of the effort, promoting individuals of color. Our partnership sent a strong message to my firm and my clients. The private sector, in particular, is very slow to embrace the changes needed.”

Depeiza sees opportunities for similar partnerships between minority and non-minority firms, and even hopes that DREAM Collaborative can pay it forward. “My advice to small minority firms just getting off the ground is to focus on being good at what you do. Own your expertise. Don’t expect someone to hire you because you’re Black. Because when you partner with larger firms, they’re going to need to see that you have the skill set necessary to get the job done. The client is looking for the most talented team, not color. If you have the skills to execute the project, and see yourself as a professional and equal, bringing value to the table, they will too.”

He adds, “If DREAM wasn’t good at what we do, Al and I could have been buddies, but I don’t know how far the business partnership would have gone. We still need to get the job done.”

Equals in Every Sense

Other areas where minority architects are too often pushed into the background are marketing and leadership development. Depeiza and Spagnolo show up as an integrated team, both actively engaging directly with clients before, during and after projects. This builds the type of client-consultant relationships that lead to vital repeat work. It also transcends the reality of how minority participation requirements typically work in the industry.

“It annoys me when I get an RFP and they talk about minority-owned firms and women-owned firms, because I know that a lot of firms are just checking names off a list,” says Spagnolo. “They’re not going to the depth of exploring a relationship like Troy and I have. I’ve always been baffled by this. We have to get rid of that process and move to more of what Troy and I are accomplishing. Equitable partnerships, sharing successes and risks, as equals.”

Spagnolo also envisions a transformation in leadership development for minority architects. “I’m part of a leadership roundtable. There are 50 of us, and for the entire 16 years, there hasn’t been one person of color in my group. How can we discuss issues that are facing Black architects, and talk about elevating firms of color, when we don’t have anyone who looks different from us in the room?”

Depeiza is planning to attend the next meeting of the roundtable, which the pair agree is a start at making small strides toward change. Says Spagnolo, “At the last roundtable in October, I said, ‘emulate me.’ Let’s not just talk about it. Find a talent to work with. Diverse groups, people of color. Most of you don’t have people of color on your staff. Ask yourself why. What can you do to change that dynamic? Experience what I have, working with this incredibly talented firm. Actually make a difference.”

“There is no fixed solution for greater DEI initiatives,” says Depeiza. “Collaborative and integrated processes with diverse thinkers from diverse backgrounds are required for progress and true inclusivity in the industry.”

“LGBT-Owned” Gains DBE Traction

The emergence of DEI programs in the historically conservative AEC industry is an encouraging sign for social justice as a whole. In a similar vein, the broadening of the disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) to include LGBT-owned firms is a growing trend.

Across the city from DREAM Collaborative and SGA, 40-person Dyer Brown Architects was officially recognized in 2020 as an LGBT Business Enterprise by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and its Supplier Diversity Initiative. According to Dyer Brown President Brent Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, the decision to pursue the certification was driven by many factors, and the achievement of it has delivered benefits on multiple fronts.

Initially, says Zeigler, the firm was motivated primarily by the business development benefits of the designation. But as the certification process went on, coinciding with the civil unrest sparked by the George Floyd murder, Zeigler and his business partner, Rachel Woodhouse, NCIDQ, recognized that there was a larger purpose at play.

“There are a lot of gays and lesbians in the design industry, but not necessarily in leadership positions,” says Zeigler. “The more we began to dig into it, the more we saw how the LGBT certification ties into the bigger picture of diversity. Racial diversity. Gender diversity. More than three-quarters of our staff is female, and our goal has always been to create a firm that is welcoming and open to everyone. We saw that the LGBT certification ties into that, helping to foster a pipeline of talent that encourages people of color, women, gays and lesbians to grow into leadership and ownership roles.”

From a business perspective, the certification paid immediate dividends. NGLCC has more than 300 corporate sponsors, all of whom explicitly express a commitment to pursue LGBT firms for vendor relationships, with stated diversity spending goals. According to NGLCC, there are over 1,500 Certified LGBT Business Enterprises.

“The LGBT certification is already opening a lot of doors for us, giving us opportunities we might otherwise not have had,” says Zeigler. “We received a cold call from a major shipping company looking for diversity suppliers. We’re also seeing a lot of corporations and state and local government agencies beginning to recognize LGBT certification as a minority standing.”

Introspection and Revelation

The certification also forced Zeigler to do some introspection, confronting and overcoming his initial reluctance to publicize the LGBT certification. “I often talk about bringing my full self to work, and I wasn’t doing that,” he says. “As a white male, I’m still very privileged on two of three fronts. But on another level, I realized that it is a bit of a handicap when you can’t be fully transparent or share things that we all connect on, especially in an industry where a big portion of hiring comes down to chemistry. Knowing this, and knowing that it’s up to me as president to make sure everyone is getting paid and the work is coming in, made me feel better about leveraging the certification.”

Zeigler also overcame concerns that the revelation from the announcement could turn some clients or potential clients away from Dyer Brown. “At the end of the day, if it’s important to us and we’re fully behind the goals of not only LGBT certification, but our other diversity goals—if being public about it offends someone, we don’t want to be working with them anyway. In the bigger picture, the benefits outweigh any potential negatives.”

To be eligible for LGBT Business Enterprise certification, a business must be at least 51% owned, operated, managed, and controlled by an LGBT person or persons who are either U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, be independent from any non-LGBT business enterprise, have a principal place of business in the U.S. and be formed as a legal entity here.

How is your firm putting your DEI policy into practice? What are your challenges and lessons learned thus far? I’d love to hear from you at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.