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This Pitt program is helping small minority-owned businesses succeed

A person in a black vest, a person in sunglasses and a red shirt and a person in a black jacket

Darrell Williams has worked in the construction industry for more than three decades. And in that time, he’s seen many companies start up and fail.

“I see why they came and went — without the knowledge of how to run a construction company properly, and not reaching out and not having a mentor, I can see why a lot of them fail,” said Williams, owner of Wilco Construction.

Despite his experience, Williams said the mentorship he received through Pitt’s Mentor-Protege Program was critical in making sure his company didn’t join that list of failed business.

“I was kind of self-taught in this business coming through,” Williams said. “And I developed a lot of bad habits. Through this mentorship program, I've gotten rid of a lot.”

Part of the Facilities Management Diversity Initiatives in the Office of Facilities Management, the Mentor-Protege Program brings together large construction companies to collaborate with smaller, minority-owned construction companies.

In the fiscal year 2022, the University spent a record $13.2 million on minority-owned construction firms.

In the fiscal year 2022, the University spent a record $13.2 million on minority-owned construction firms.

The partnership entails the larger companies providing training and business assistance to the smaller firms, encouraging the smaller firms to grow.

The program launched in December 2020 when the Office of Facilities Management called for proposals from 40 companies in the region. Since then, 10 mentor-protege teams have formed, adding more competitive minority-owned firms to the region’s construction marketplace, said Scott Bernotas, vice chancellor of facilities management.

[Read more: Facilities apprenticeship program brings new levels of Hill District community partnership and collaboration]

One of the office’s main goals was to create a program focused on growing the smaller businesses, making them more competitive and resilient in the region’s construction firm marketplace, Bernotas said.

As part of the program, the mentor companies must describe the training they will provide, meet with Bernotas and other representatives from the Office of Facilities Management quarterly and provide annual reports. The office then makes sure the companies have the opportunity to make a strong, competitive bid on Pitt construction projects.

Bernotas said thanks to the program, in the fiscal year 2022, the University spent a record $13.2 million on minority-owned construction firms. And during the first quarter of the fiscal year 2023, “we’re almost at that number already,” he said.

Ron Cortes, vice president of building operations for Mascaro Construction Company, and his staff are mentoring Williams and Aaron Reed, president of Reed Building Supply. Through the partnership, they developed a series of training sessions covering topics such as how Mascaro operates, how to find construction projects and how to manage staff health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through this partnership, the companies have worked together on 10 projects, one of the first being the construction of a new restaurant, Cafe on the Corner. Williams and Reed’s companies managed the project while Mascaro oversaw and provided extra ideas and support.

In the two years since joining the program, both protege companies have doubled their revenue and been able to hire more staff.

And those are just a few of the benefits from the Mentor-Protege Program, they said.

Williams said the mentorship can help smaller companies endure the hardships that come with the construction industry.

“Just by talking and calling and talking to the estimators at Mascaro, it helps you push along and get through those tough times when you don't know how to bid or you don't know how to manage a project wisely or, do your accounting, your books,” he said, adding that his company would not be where it is today without mentorship from Mascaro Construction company.

“It's been everything to us,” Reed said. “I couldn't ask for anything more from this program.”

Mentors also benefit from these partnerships, Cortes said. The mentors and proteges build strong relationships that help them expand their networks and, ultimately, find more construction opportunities.

Richard Taylor, CEO of ImbuTec, said mentorship from Turner Construction helped his firm secure work on the upcoming 200,000 to 250,000-square-foot Pitt BioForge facility.

Taylor said he appreciates how the University uses its market power to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the region's construction businesses.

“It’s taken their influence as a major construction owner to drive change within the industry, and economic activity and inclusion in our community,” Taylor said. “That’s just so phenomenal and so gratifying to see an institution use its power thoughtfully and strategically.”


— Donovan Harrell, photo courtesy of Mascaro Construction: Bill Franczyk (left), director of Client Services for Mascaro Construction Company, mentored and oversaw Reed Building Supply President Aaron Reed and his employees as they constructed Café On the Corner, owned by Teresa Blackwell (center).