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Mentor - protégé relationships between large engineering firms and disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) firms represent a unique opportunity for all involved. GDOT defines a DBE firm as a “for profit small business where socially and economically disadvantaged individuals own at least 51% interest and also control management and daily business operations,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Owners can be women, African Americans, Hispanic, Native Americans, Asian Pacific, or Subcontinent Asian Americans, and they need to apply for DBE certification from the state to qualify. Additional requirements must be met for certification, including “a personal net worth that does not exceed $1.32 million” and other financial criteria. The DBE Program exists so that these firms have an equal opportunity to receive and participate in DOT-assisted contracts. This article gathers four different perspectives to offer insights on how DBE mentorship is not only a benefit for the DBE firm but also benefits the mentor firm and others.


Kimberly A. King, Equal Employment Opportunity Director at GDOT, works closely with Stacey Key, GDOT Board Member and CEO of Georgia Minority Supplier Diversity Council. Together, they help spread the word about DBE Certification via workshops and webinars. They find firms that meet the criteria to be a DBE and assist their certification. Although GDOT does not have a formal mentor-protégé program, they collaborate with firms on the steps to get there, including becoming listed as a DBE firm and bidding for subcontracting projects. GDOT works as a broader team that includes everything from DBE Analysts to compliance officers, ensuring federally mandated funds are allocated appropriately to those who can benefit from them most. “We are very deliberate; we’re very careful, conscientious in reviewing those applications and vetting those applicants to make sure that those folks that are being certified are those that ought to be certified,” King shares.

The current GDOT DBE directory has 3000 firms in it. Increasingly many of the prime contractors: subcontractor relationships also develop mentor-protégé components. “[The] mentor-protégé relationship is just one of several types of assistance that could be provided on the project to make sure the participation of the DBE is meaningful,” states King. She continues, “GDOT is hard at work in finding opportunities for these firms to develop and grow. Sometimes those opportunities are mentor-protégé, sometimes supportive services assistants, sometimes notifying them about an upcoming project, etc.”

Kimberly A. King, GDOT

Kimberly A. King, GDOT


“I began my career working in DBE firms, so DBE development has always been near and dear to my heart,” shares Claudia Bilotto, Senior VP and Southern States District Leader of WSP. She worked in two different DBE firms when she first got started, and now, 22 years of industry experience later, she is still serving in DBE - only from the other side of the table. WSP is an organization of 55,000 employees headquartered in Montreal with a large U.S. presence; they specialize in engineering and design across all realms of infrastructure.

They help DBE firms from sole proprietorships to small firms of less than 10 employees. Bilotto also works cross-functionally with the Georgia Mentor Protege Connection, a “business development program that matches up small businesses with larger partners, sanctioned by the state”. Her role is in the procurement subcommittee, serving as a “DBE Champion on key pursuits and projects”.

Bilotto emphasized that partnership with DBE firms grants them access to diversification of services. “Being plugged into larger engineering firms allows you to expand your technical capabilities” and “gives you access to clients that you maybe haven’t worked with before”. She unpacks further: “Some DBEs are comfortable staying in one technical area. Others want and need the opportunity to expand. That is the type of support that I can provide as part of a large firm. In addition, sole-proprietor DBE firms often end up spread very thin – in need of support because there is one person responsible for all aspects of the business – not a sustainable model. Providing guidance on future structure so that there is a clear path to delegate workload and identify additional team members is critical to sustainable growth – and mental health!”

Through the mentorships, WSP benefits from win-win opportunities to deliver for clients, receiving additional support in technical delivery, and developing trusted long-standing business relationships. In fact, a key component of DBE mentor-protégé connections is the ability to form enduring partnerships. Bilotto offered that many partnerships become her close, personal friends and that “these are people that I care about their success”. Between check-ins, team building, networking, and lunches there are ample opportunities where friendship and business align.

These partnerships establish business sustainability - everything from whom to hire, what to outsource, and how to develop a long-term plan could umbrella under this need. A notable challenge area is new hires. Being that most small DBE firms start out with few people, it is often unsettling to trust someone else with a business that is very personal to you. Sometimes difficult conversations need to be had about hiring. Bilotto shares, “It takes courage and grit to address what needs to be addressed and keep moving forward. You must be able to give up the reins and bring in people that you trust and sometimes that takes different attempts to do so.”

Claudie Bilotto, WSP

Claudie Bilotto, WSP


For over a decade, Garrick Edwards, VP/ Transportation Lead of AECOM, and Sean Garland, President & Owner of Pont Engineering, have worked in tandem to deliver on civil engineering projects and implemented their own mentor-protégé relationship. Their clients span a multitude of government contracts in the transportation sector - from city bridges to airports. Pont Engineering is a small black-owned business and engineering firm of 25 employees, whereas AECOM is a large multi-national corporation of 50,000 employees, 450 of which are Georgia based.

Garland spoke about how AECOM greatly supports Pont Engineering in “developing stronger business capabilities” - specifically, saving time and resources in knowing where to invest and where not to invest and managing client relations. “[The relationship] has provided us with the stability a small firm needs to hire, train, and retain the highly capable professionals we need to grow.” Edwards points out, “through AECOM, Pont is given access to strategic marketing, technical training, and advisory support, as well as technologies and business systems typical of a large firm.” It also “allows the protégé to predict cash flow, take calculated risks to add staff, diversify services, and invest in training and infrastructure.” Furthermore, “AECOM benefits from a partner who prioritizes our work and understands our rigorous quality and safety standards.” Ultimately, Edwards believes that it is in AECOM’s best interest to support someone like Garland, as inevitably, as his engineering firm grows, so too does AECOM.

When asked about what they feel makes a successful mentor-protégé relationship work, Garland emphasized that the protégé should show up with a willingness to deliver on client expectations. Both agree that transparency needs to be invited into the dynamic by bringing the protégé into client meetings and allowing them to see how the engineering firm truly operates from the inside. Although there may need to be legal protections in place, like NDAs related to intellectual property, Edwards and Garland do not restrict one another’s business in a non-compete capacity. Instead, they suggested their symbiosis is so well integrated that sometimes the client at hand does not even know which of them belongs to which company. As Edwards offered, “the culmination of these agreements is realized when the mentor firm can’t tell the difference between work produced in-house and by the protégé firm.” They work together as a team, learning and growing through each other’s experiences. What they share in common is a desire to deliver on client expectations and - at its core - preserve the longevity of their mentorprotégé relationship.

For them, the relationship is built on trust and a desire to support each other in their respective careers. Garland points out that the best partnerships are not just about checking a diversity box but instead making integration a key part of the story. “My hope is that we engage in meaningful conversations and develop actionable goals that build sustainable DBE firms, rather than focusing on a minimum DBE goal.” Finally, Edwards highlighted there is a corporate responsibility to deliver on businesses like Garland’s, as for too long the field of engineering has been unavailable to those in underrepresented groups.

Sean Garland, Pont Engineering

Sean Garland, Pont Engineering


Jennifer A. Etheridge, President, and Kate Henry, Vice President, own Aulick Engineering, a 40-person engineering firm that is a women-owned small business (DBE). Serving with focus areas on hydrology/hydraulics, civil-site design, and airport inspection; they assist on everything from airports to state and local transportation departments, municipalities, and engineering firms.

They have worked with larger firms such as Parsons, Arcadis, Michael Baker, and RS&H. Through their endeavors, they also experience contractual mentor-protégé relationships. As Etheridge shares, “The mentoring program has allowed a smaller firm like us to be involved in some really big projects that in the past we haven’t had the staff to pursue, even as a minor sub. Having the intentional support of a Prime has allowed us to work together with the staff we have and grow our staff throughout the course of the project.” A consistent thread across mentor - protégé relationships for Aulick Engineering has been that of a win-win. The DBE firm gets to expand on untapped projects, and the larger firm gains help on client workload.

Communication is key to making these types of partnerships a success. Etheridge explains, “I think that relationships are important and finding the right fit from a skillset and personality perspective is an important part of making the mentoring program successful, so if you are a mentor or a protégé and you have not had the best experience, I would encourage you to keep trying until you find the right fit. When it fits right, I believe you will see that this can be a mutually beneficial program.”

Benefits to Aulick Engineering have included training and management advice. Henry told of how a specific project manager at Arcadis offered support on reasonable hours estimates, salary information, and other topics not typically discussed between firms. Henry also shared how firms RS&H and Parsons offered helpful quarterly training on topics spanning from invoicing requirements, Bluebeam training, motivational speakers, diversity training, leadership, and HR. N

“When done right, the DBE mentoring program can bring benefits to both firms and facilitate long-term relationships that result in successful projects and help pave the way for the next generation of engineering firms,” shares Etheridge. Both Etheridge and Henry are encouraged by the increasing mentor-protégé components being written into new contracts. Henry elaborates, “We are glad to see it incorporated into the contracts and projects to encourage primes to do this work. We have enjoyed being engaged in the program from that perspective. It has been exciting to see some of the firms we work with develop their own internal mentorship programs in response to these requirements.”

These types of strategic partnerships benefit not only mentors and protégés but respective engineering firms. Each side benefits in areas including strategy, client relations, business expenses, diversification of expertise, and investment opportunities. Although there are always areas to fine-tune, ultimately, these types of partnerships go deeper. They lead the way in long-term collaboration and shared experiences that embody learning, growth, trust, empathy, and service. Perhaps Sean Garland, Pont Engineering, said it best: “Without somebody that you have confidence in helping you navigate your career choices, I don’t know how many people would be successful in their careers.”

Jennifer Etheridge, Aulick Engineering

Jennifer Etheridge, Aulick Engineering