Recently, I had the honor of being named one of Crain’s Notable Black Leaders and Executives. This award has resulted in no small amount of reflection back on my career: On how I operate as a leader today, and how my professional choices and opportunities are intrinsically intertwined with the community I was raised in and the city that I love.
Growing up in Bronzeville and later in the south suburb of Markham, I saw Black leadership all around. From sports coaches and block club captains, the adults around me demonstrated leadership by building a supportive network that exposed me to a variety of opportunities and environments and encouraged me to explore beyond my boundaries. These individuals continue to inspire my own approach to leading a diverse team at Wight & Company.
Early in my career, I got a phone call from City Hall - would I consider heading up the effort to redraft the legal requirements to bring Chicago’s Minority, Women, and Disadvantage Business Enterprise (M/W/DBE) program into compliance, and maybe even improve it in the process? I didn’t hesitate. My Response, “Of course”. As a lawyer, the letter of the law was clear to me. What was much more challenging - and ultimately most rewarding - was being able to demonstrate how vital these businesses were (and are) to the region’s overall economy. The program was ultimately amended for the better. Today, over 2,300 M/W/DBEs are certified in the city of Chicago, an achievement I’m proud to have played a role in.
Fortunately, today as President of Transportation and Infrastructure at Wight & Company, I am in a position to continue to make an impact in even greater ways. When we pursue work at Wight, we’re given an M/W/DBE requirement as set by the client. When my team and I look at those, we consider that requirement - say, 35% - as a floor, not as a ceiling. That’s a starting point for us in terms of M/W/DBE partner engagement.
I get extremely frustrated when I hear some firms say they’re “giving away" work to M/W/DBE firms when looking at these requirements. My response to them is: this work is not yours to give away to begin with. Majority-owned firms are not entitled to this work. If there's a 35% M/W/DBE goal, then I believe that the mindset should be that the majority-owned firm is working to earn that 65% of the work in partnership with M/W/DBE companies. You can’t give away that which you haven’t even won yet.
And yes, I say “partnership” on purpose, as Wight looks for substantive participation by our M/W/DBE subcontractors on these proposals. I need to know there will be a meaningful, substantive opportunity for the M/W/DBE companies to engage in the project; they are not just a box to check off. My goal with every M/W/DBE partner is that they can grow from their work with Wight, and perhaps someday can be major contractors or primes on similar opportunities, if that’s part of their business plan.
In addition, we have our own mentor/protégé program for these subcontractors, to help them build capacity and increase their confidence in pursuing more and bigger jobs in the future. Just as with the work I did in procurement for the City many years ago, I continue to advocate that it's very important that the spirit of these programs is honored, not just the letter.
I carry that accomplishment with me to this day and will continue to use my position as a leader to ensure opportunities are afforded to all in our communities. I am grateful for the support and encouragement I’ve received throughout my career. I can only hope to inspire and impact others in the same way.