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Change Leader: The Engineering Advantages of Being a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE)

Todd Danielson on February 1, 2024 - in Articles, Profile

This interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/45RjICS .

Greg Chismark is president of WBK Engineering; and Yemi Oyewole is board member and practice manager for transportation, WBK Engineering.

Based on news announcements and industry proclamations, it seems there’s currently a never-ending supply of engineering and design work, and every firm has more projects than it can realistically accomplish. Much of that is true, but the work isn’t necessarily divided evenly—and not necessarily equitably.

Yemi Oyewole

Like many industries, there are economies of scale and experience factors that favor large and widespread engineering firms, particularly the massive firms regularly referenced in the largest deals and projects. For the small and startup firms with less than 100 people, it can prove very difficult to compete with these heavyweights.

Getting a Chance

Some argue that government should never get involved in business matters, but enough leaders and politicians felt the need to at least give newcomers a chance—in engineering and many other industries—that government programs were developed to try and even the playing field—at least a little. One such program is the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), which allows qualifying firms to achieve a certification that allows them to be eligible for certain government-funded contracts that seek to reward and prioritize these DBEs.

WBK Engineering has been practicing engineering for decades in the state of Illinois, but in 2019 it was wholly purchased by Mno-Bmadsen, the investment enterprise and a wholly owned instrumentality of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, a Native American tribe, which has a government base in Dowagiac, Mich. Predating the purchase, WBK long had a reverence for the environment that meshed with the new owners.

“We have a tagline we use often called ‘mediating the built and natural environment,’ which is really that interface between the built world and the natural world and making sure we mitigate environmental impact to the greatest extent possible,” says Greg Chismark, president of WBK Engineering.

According to Yemi Oyewole, board member and practice manager for transportation at WBK, “the DBE program is intended to ensure a fair practice, basically leveling the playing field by providing small businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals a fair opportunity to compete for federally funded transportation contracts.”

The Illinois Unified Certification Process (UCP) is administered by five transportation agencies: Illinois Department of Transportation, City of Chicago, Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace. All share the UCP, so if a firm becomes certified by one, they’re eligible for work from all five.

“It allows us to expand our transportation practice into other states and markets that as a 35-person firm would be very much a challenge,” notes Chismark. “The DBE certification gives us opportunities to develop experience with other state DOTs as well as with other consulting firms to partner on projects that will get us experience to help grow our firm.”

“Before we were certified, we were competing with the larger firms for the same contracts,” adds Oyewole. “DBE firms were given a better chance to compete for the same contracts, because a lot of the federal contracts have a participation goal, which we now happen to fall within.”

The Process

Although it seemed daunting before starting the process, Chismark and Oyewole were able to overcome the challenges due to the large amount of planning WBK Engineering put in beforehand.

“What allowed us to be successful is we sought help,” says Chismark. “We brought in attorneys that had been familiar with the certifying agency, familiar with the DBE process. I thought that was very helpful. It helped us keep on track.”

“An attorney can help guide you to let you know whether you will qualify or not, so you don’t waste your time,” adds Oyewole. “They have a checklist you can go through before you go any farther.”

Another key to WBK Engineering’s successful certification was persistence. “Don’t give up no matter how hard it may seem,” notes Chismark.

One of the final elements of the application process is an onsite interview, which WBK was able to conduct virtually.

“We didn’t take any step in the process lightly,” adds Chismark. “We worked with the attorneys. We had questions from the agency. They gave us an idea of what they were interested in, where they wanted more information or if they thought our application wasn’t quite complete. We weren’t surprised by any particular step, and I felt like it went fairly well.”

It must have gone well, as WBK Engineering now has the DBE certificate to prove it.


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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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