By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Through collaboration and leadership, the Strategic Partnership Program (SPP) aims to enhance the capacity of small, local contractors to large-scale construction projects in the Puget Sound region. Clark Construction and Lease Crutcher Lewis recently celebrated 10 of SPP’s newest graduates for their achievements over an eight-month period.
The SPP is an intensive, eight-month MBA-style course modeled after Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business’ curriculum, according to Marivic Bamba Chennault, director of community engagement for Clark. It is targeted to local small-business enterprises including minority-, women-, and veteran-owned firms.
Chennault comes from a background in conducting disparity studies against minority- and women-owned businesses. That experience gave her an awareness and consciousness of challenges that minorities and women-owned businesses face.
“There is a tangible benefit to local economic growth when we are able to help build small business capacity and provide opportunities for them to work alongside us on our projects. We consider it an honor to be able to have a meaningful impact on the communities in which we work and live,” she said.
Chennault is now in her fourth year overseeing the SPP in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and she continues to introduce more collaboration opportunities for small businesses.
The 2018-2019 class is the third to graduate in Seattle and includes a cross section of subcontractors from trucking to general contractors, and painters to technology services.
There are potential opportunities for small businesses to work on the Washington State Convention Center, Sea-Tac Airport, and University of Washington projects, and they want to build the capacity of businesses to see if there’s a fit.
She mentioned that so far there have been two contracts awarded to previous SPP graduates.
In addition to the technical and business skills acquired, participants become part of a supportive SPP network, and benefit from ongoing access to Clark’s professional resources. The instructors are Clark and Lease Crutcher Lewis employees who volunteer their time to lead these sessions.
This represents incredible commitment with late nights, homework assignments, and the capstone project while juggling their professional and personal lives.
A few of the graduates shared their thoughts and learnings from the program:
Hermi Bella came to the United States in 1997 from the Philippines. He is the owner and president of CADD (Computer-Aided Design and Drafting) Tech, where they work with engineers to prepare drawings and permits for construction projects.
Bella learned a lot of on the job training, as well as the legal and estimation side of projects.
“After the class, I am planning to become a contractor. What they taught me helped me to be more confident in presenting and making bid proposals,” he said.
Bella hopes to work on large site development contracts in the future, like an airport or residential project.
“I know it’ll help me prepare for my future career. It’s a very nice program and I wish more people could go through it,” he said.
Bella wants to continue to learn more and would take an extension of the program if it existed.
“Learning is not stoppable, it’s part of life and learning from different countries and cultures,” he said.
Originally from Afghanistan, Mehdi Esfandiari came to the United States in August of 2014. He has an associate degree in civil engineering from INTI International University in Malaysia.
Esfandiari said that his boss, Janet Keiser, graduated from the SPP a year before he did, and signed him and his brother up for the program.
A quality control specialist, Esfandiari started working at J. Keiser & Associates LLC last August.
“It was very helpful for us, especially for people like me and my brother who came from a different country. Learning about how everything works in the U.S. was amazing,” he said.
Esfandiari said that having worked in construction in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the process here was a little different, but most were similar. He learned a lot about the bidding process, and although it was challenging at first, as the courses progressed, it made more sense.
“It has prepared me mentally for the potential of owning my own company in the future,” he said.
The program has eased his fears about the legal process, operational tasks, and project bidding. He’s also grateful for the connections he’s made.
Esfandiari found the constructive feedback from experienced project managers very helpful.
“They will tell you what they want to see in the presentation and they were honest. If they didn’t like something, they’d say it and encourage and guide us through it, that was really nice,” he said.
“It’s nice to know them because in the future, when I start my own company, they’re assets and they can help me. They can be mentors to me,” he said.
Marivic Punsalan, co-owner of ROMAR7, almost missed out on this professional development opportunity when she deleted the email to participate.
However, after reviewing the details more carefully, she decided to give it a try despite not being a subcontractor or in the construction trade.
What she ultimately gained from the program was invaluable. Punsalan was grateful for the access to information and opportunities to network with executives and contracts a small business would not normally have access to.
“As an owner of a small company, you wear multiple hats to cut costs, so more often than not, you’re also working in a silo, it can feel very isolating.
Spending eight months with the other smaller companies was a huge perk of the program. Sharing the pros and cons of being at a small company, along with ideas on how each has dealt with hardships and successes, was just as important as the information being shared by the instructors each night,” Punsalan said.
One of the biggest challenges for Punsalan was staying focused and being present during the courses. She explained how she would get excited and latch onto words and phrases that the presenters would say, and immediately try to think about how she could apply those to her own company.
Finding time to work on the capstone project outside of her full-time job was also challenging, but ultimately very rewarding when she and her team were able to overcome communication issues at the end.
“The last eight months have been wonderful. Each week, I take great information back to my team of five. The program was created for small businesses and the instructors are so passionate about being there for us.
Moving forward, it’s about creating new opportunities for ourselves. Based on what I learned, ROMAR7 is now diversifying our service offering,” Punsalan said.
The SPP program originated in Clark Construction’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md. in 2016.
“This was not only for our company, but to build a pool of small businesses that can work on all construction projects. It’s our way to help the economy of the local communities in which we work and target them for future opportunities,” Chennault said.
Nationally, the SPP has over 800 graduates from seven areas: Bethesda, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Northern California, and Southern California, including 28 from Seattle.
The program has resulted in over $1 billion worth of project work for Clark Construction.
Applications are now open for next year’s Strategic Partnership Program. The deadline is August 9 with the program starting in September 2019. For more information and to apply, visit
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.