President and CEO of Integrated CM Solutions (San Antonio, TX), a program/construction management firm that’s had more than $800 million worth of projects since 2015.
By Luke Carothers
A long-time resident of San Antonio, Stewart-Baylor graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a degree in communications. Following graduation, she spent a few years working for a construction management company before founding Integrated CM Solutions as a project management firm in 2015.
Stewart-Baylor uses her competitive nature to guide her small business to new heights each day. ICMS currently operates as a sub-consultant on most of its projects, but this doesn’t stop Stewart-Baylor from thinking big; she wants to make the firm prime as it continues to grow.
A conversation with LaShawn Stewart-Baylor.
The Zweig Letter: What do you see as the “cost” of ignoring or downplaying the impact of racism in our industry? What are we missing out on by failing to dismantle these barriers?
LaShawn Stewart-Baylor: It took me some time to decide if this interview was something I wanted to do for fear that barriers would be set for my company because I spoke about things that no one wants to hear or even say. That is the “cost.” The idea that speaking about everyday experiences and bringing them to light could cause me to lose the very thing that I am the most passionate about is really sad. But I realized that if I don’t do it now, when will I do it? I also recognize that I do have a lot of great clients, colleagues, and potential partners who want to hear what I have to say so that they can make changes and look at things from a different perspective. It is important that we stop ignoring and start working toward making changes for the new generation of AEC professionals. It is also important to humanize the barriers so that the real work can begin. If not, how do we explain that we had an opportunity but chose not to take it? How do we grow as a community of leaders?
TZL: You’ve built an incredible business in five years – more than $800 million in projects during that time. What has been your business development strategy in growing ICMS?
LSB: As a small business, your livelihood sometimes varies from day to day, so with my business strategy I have to be mindful of flexibility and patience. Fortunately, my industry experience has landed us opportunities that I never would have imagined so early, and that is a blessing. If I had to speak on strategy, I would say focus on what is feasible and pursue it vigorously. Be patient with the process and plan accordingly for the long lead items like contract, NTP, and payment schedule. While pursuing projects, have the confidence to know that you are qualified to do the job and that you have hired the most qualified people to handle all opportunities that come your way. Pay attention to industry trends. And last but not least, pray. It takes a whole lot of faith to maintain in this industry and that sometimes is all you need to get through the day.
TZL: There have been diversity initiatives and panel conversations and committees to “end racism” for a long while, yet the AEC industry continues to prove time and time again that we have not made progress at reflecting the clients and communities we serve. How do we get there? What shake-ups do we need?
LSB: I agree, the AEC community needs to do more. I have seen more emails of companies “committing to make a change,” but if there is nothing put in place to make sure those changes happen, then all of this was just another exercise that took up space in 2020. I am not sure how we get there, but I do know this is a start. I think finding ways to incorporate more voices of color into the industry will help. But the real work comes down to the leadership and how they plan to work on making a difference. The “good ol boy” system should be a thing of the past. I would love to see some of the larger companies working side by side with their minority partners to find out what they feel will help change the climate and commit to make those changes together. No one wants to have the conversations but that is the only way things will move in a direction of change.
TZL: How have your firm’s certifications – including DBE, WBE, SBE, and MBE – impacted your firm’s growth and your brand? What advice would you offer to companies out there that serve in a prime role and work with firms that hold certifications?
LSB: The quick answer is yes, my certifications are what impacts my growth. I hesitate to say that though because I don’t like to define my company as a “Small,” “Minority,” “Woman” owned business. I define it as a capable business, a qualified business, a business that is responsive and proactive. A business that has career, certified, educated staff that all have worked their butts off for 15-30 years (respectfully) and are considered subject matter experts in their field…who just happen to be black, brown, and/or female.
More often than not, SMWBE firms are looked at as a necessary evil in this industry because of goal setting and disparity studies, which is unfortunate and the furthest thing from the truth. The truth and success lies in those teaming relationships that offer growth on both sides of the fence. The prime firms out there that look at their SMWBE partners as “subs” and not as partners will always find themselves more frustrated with the process because they are not looking at the value that uplifting such firms and treating them as an important part of the process brings. For instance, one of the first things addressed during the pandemic was the impact it made on small businesses. That rang volumes because it shows how much small businesses impact the economy. By offering a small business an opportunity, you are not offering a favor. You are simply doing your part to enhance the industry which benefits us all in the long run.
TZL: Many white people that I know see the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as horrifying events based on a “few bad apples” on the police force. What would you like to share – if anything – related to these current events?
LSB: I have had many of my white colleagues in the AEC industry reach out to me because they are confused about what is happening or they just want to educate themselves on what is going on. I answer, give them my experiences with the police force and even my family’s experiences. The only thing I would like to share at this point is that if you feel like an entire movement happened based on a “few bad apples” then you have lived under a rock long enough and it’s time to come from underneath it. Inequality and racism are both very touchy and uncomfortable subjects. Many people shy away from things that make them uncomfortable because they don’t like to believe it is possible. But when you look into the eyes of your “black friend” and they tell you a story about something that happened to them personally, and you are not outraged, then you are a large part of the problem. Equality is a humanity issue. Being treated like a human being is all my community is fighting for. Imagine fighting just to be treated like a human being? Imagine sparking debate over the word “matter”? It’s tough, I know, but it is reality. Humanity is a reality. If only the individuals that came up with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter thought of saying #blacklivesmatterAsWell or #blacklivesmatterToo, then what would be the debate? It’s unfortunate that now everyone has to have an uncomfortable conversation with their children. The question is, what side of that conversation were you on when you explained it to them?
TZL: Do you think firms with certifications (MBE/DBW/WBE/HUB) are respected as equal to their peers without these certifications?
LSB: No, I do not. I have had, and do have, meaningful teaming relationships with firms that “get it,” remember where they started out, and treat you like a partner and a valuable part of the team. This is the firm I target to work with. Then you have the other firms that treat you like a number and could care less how insulting it is when you are offered 1 percent of something simply because you fill a quota. When you lead with that mindset working for that type of firm your entire career, you tend to lose sight of the fact that you are actually working with a human being and not a number. Especially when you choose to work with a company because you are trying to appeal to an owner who has a diverse conglomerate of decision makers. I have been asked to “bring the black vote” because I’m black or “appeal to the woman in charge of the contract” because I am female. Where is the respect in that? Unfortunately, MBE/DBE/WBE/HUB firms have had to grin and bear it because they have mouths to feed, employees to support, and a business to maintain.
TZL: What advice would you give to a leader who wants to engage in a discussion about diversity but isn’t sure where to start?
LSB: I would advise them to do a review of their entire company from the top to the bottom. Review how inclusive they are within their company leadership, and if that looks exactly the same as it did even five years ago, redo the entire process. I would also advise them to look at how their sellers or seller/doers are building their teams when pursuing contracts. Are you looking at numbers (because you have to) or are you looking at value? Are you allowing the younger generation to help you make some decisions? How many African American men or women do you have in leadership? How much diversity is in your human resources department? What type of footprint do you have in urban communities? Are you recruiting from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and do you have internships available with said HBCUs? None of these things have anything to do with charity. Minority businesses are not asking for handouts. We are asking for a fair and level playing field and to be treated like you would treat anyone that you respect. Once you add these things to your company culture, then the discussion about diversity can begin.
TZL: How often are you the only person who looks like you in a meeting? How does being aware of being a black woman influence the way you interact in meetings, handle disputes, or negotiate?
LSB: Within the region I am in, nine times out of 10, I am the ONLY black female in the room. There’s an illustration floating around on the internet of a black woman sitting in a chair facing a panel of 10 white males and the caption reads “Describe what you can bring to this company.” As soon as I saw that, I was like there it is, that is what it feels like! I have had this issue my entire career. And like most, if not all women (especially women of color) I have to be the one in the room who knows the most but doesn’t “intimidate,” feels the most passionate but doesn’t come across “emotional” or “angry” etc. And, as a woman you have to demand attention that doesn’t involve someone undressing you with their eyes. It can be an interesting juggle at times, but I have worked in corporate America my entire career, so I know enough to be effective and maintain my dignity. I am not the type to conform but because I am passionate about what I do, I feel that my authenticity speaks volumes in situations like that. Real is the only thing I have an interest in being and if that is not what someone wants from me, then we are not meant to do business with one another. I am often looked at with shock because of the level of industry knowledge I have and how I conduct myself in high stress situations. I’m not sure why the shock is there but I can venture to guess it comes from what I look like and that I am the one in the room least likely to be there.
TZL: Many AEC leaders that we work with feel like race and gender don’t matter, individual characteristics and capabilities do. How would you respond to that?
LSB: I respond to that by saying until the shoe is on the other foot, there will always be people who think that. I was told by a colleague that I have known for at least 10 years that they were reluctant to put me on their team because they had “subs” that couldn’t perform in the past so they had to just write them a check and perform the work for them. I was confused by this because I wasn’t sure what that meant. So even though you have to add “subs” to the team, you were hesitant to add mine because of your experience with another “sub”? You know my characteristics and my capabilities, but you are still categorizing me because of an experience that could have happened in any situation. So even when you are not aware of privilege, it happens all the time. My response to that is like any other entrepreneur, if you don’t see my value, there is someone else out there who will. I don’t take it to heart because I don’t have time to do so. Ignorance is bliss and if living in that makes you happy, then you are not the client I want to work with anyway, friend or not. I have never shied away from an open conversation with people that feel this way because it is important for me to know exactly where we stand because time is of the essence when you are trying to build your firm and wasting it is not an option.
TZL: ICMS is celebrating its fifth anniversary this summer. What accomplishments do you take the most pride in from the past five years? Where do you see ICMS in another five years?
LSB: The accomplishments are wrapped up in the staff of professionals I have working for me. Knowing that the people who make ICMS what it is continue to believe in my direction as a leader makes me feel accomplished. I see our company being respected as a high performance-based firm that takes every project (big or small) and turns it into something that all stakeholders can be proud of. I also see us priming more contracts and working with the firms that supported us as a teaming partner now, as teaming partners of the future. My goal is to be a household name amongst the AEC community with a stellar reputation and amazing cast of individuals making that a reality every day. Bigger has never been my goal; better is always what I strive for. Like my husband says, “Just focus on the rock, Sugga.” And that is what I am doing, focusing on “the rock.”
TZL: What role could design professionals in the AEC community have in creating more inclusive spaces?
LSB: For starters, the thought that there is only room for “one” has to be removed from the scenario. If you look at the landscape of our industry, how often do you see more than one African American firm at the table in communities that are less populated with diversity? I can say from experience that those opportunities are far and few between which cause more competition within competition. The idea that if my other black colleagues are at the table, there’s no room for me makes for a non-inclusive space. If firms open the idea up to this, then it opens more doors for people of color to enter. Thinking with the mindset of us cancelling each other out brings forth less opportunities for growth on all levels of the spectrum and in all spaces within the industry.