Celebrating Black History Month: Yvette Richardson on Diversity, Passion and Purpose

Yvette Richardson

Yvette Richardson, PE, LEED AP, NOMA, NSBE - Principal and founding partner at Sabir, Richardson & Weisberg Engineering & Architecture

 

As a certified electrical engineer, Yvette Richardson has spent more than 25 years in a field where diversity, in any sense, was often hard to find. Now, as principal and partner at Sabir, Richardson & Weisberg (SRW) – a certified minority- and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) firm specializing in the architecture, engineering and design industries – Yvette and her team are committed not only to professional excellence, but also to the promotion of diversity in every sense.

Understand that diversity drives strength

As a black woman in a traditionally white and male dominated field, Yvette understands the power of diversity and the important role it plays in fostering innovation and creativity.

Yvette explains, “SRW is intentionally very diverse, beginning with our leadership. Our principals include representation by women and men equally. We’re from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and each of us practices a different belief system. We all have different stories to tell. And every day, we reaffirm our respect for each other’s differences because, as people who solve problems, we know that having numerous perspectives strengthens our work.”

With this commitment to diversity, SRW has made it its mission to motivate and support minority and women engineers and architects in New York City. The firm recruits graduates from colleges with higher minority enrollment, looks for interns at inner-city high schools and is an active member and volunteer with the National Organization of Minority Architects.

“We try to cultivate enthusiasm and optimism and confidence in the younger adults who work and intern with us. In truth, recruitment is less of an issue today. Inclusion and retention present the real challenges for many firms,” Yvette says.

Know that passion powers commitment

From a young age, Yvette was passionate about math and science, but the vocational high school she attended focused on preparing students for jobs. However, thanks to a program called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity she set her sights on college.

“Sponsors for Educational Opportunity comes to inner-city high schools and vocational schools to recruit minority students that have the potential to do well in college and I was fortunate to be among them,” she recalls. “Then, I attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and it was really tough. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be, but I loved engineering, so I took my time and got through it.”

In addition to stepping up her performance in engineering, math and design courses, Yvette also learned some important lessons about diversity while enrolled.

“New York City was such a melting pot when I was young, and we weren’t really aware of race. My parents are from the Dominican Republic and there was a lot of pride around people’s nationalities and ethnicities. It wasn’t until I left that I became more conscious of race, because people around me were more aware of it,” she tells.

Just about the time she graduated, a major economic recession was in progress and no one was hiring engineers because construction projects were on hold. Nevertheless, using the same passion, optimism and perseverance that got her through college, Yvette was able to adapt.

As she explains, “I got a job at a friend’s family business. His father was an electrician and his mom ran the business. At the time, they were going through standard but complex audits and they hired me to help with both the electrical-construction and business-management elements. It was great. I loved the construction industry and I learned so much. And they set great examples of how both minorities and women could be successful in business and in this industry. They were so supportive of my growth.”

Believe that purpose fuels growth

SRW launched in 2004, although all but one partner continued to work in previous jobs until the firm grew enough to support them. Today, SRW is a multidisciplinary firm with expertise in engineering, architecture, design and includes electrical, plumbing, mechanical and more. The firm has anywhere from 15-20 employees, depending on the projects at hand.

SRW has also provided its services to many important sites in the metro New York City area, including the Queens Zoo, NYC’s first Carnegie Library, Battery Park Fields, and the US Tennis Association stadiums. 

“To date, I’d have to say that my proudest accomplishment is to be part of the team as the electrical engineer on the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial site development. As someone who’s from New York, that’s been really special,” says Yvette.

Success hasn’t come without obstacles, though. As Yvette explains, “There have been lots of challenges for me, both as an African American and as a woman in a field that is still, by far, dominated by men. Getting my professional licensing was a huge step in overcoming those, because it gave me a higher level of respect and credibility in my field. I’ve also been fortunate to have great mentors and supervisors and projects.”

Find support for your dreams

Yvette and her team also learned that growing a business is a continuous challenge that’s even more difficult when there’s not sufficient funds to support expansion.

She learned about Excelsior Growth Fund through a New York State website that helps certified MWBEs access capital.

“There, I saw information on EGF’s SmartLoan® and applied right away. It was so easy. I uploaded all the required documents over the weekend and by that Tuesday, an EGF Business Advisor, Paola Garcia, called to learn more and walk us through the process,” she says. “We closed on the loan by the end of that week, which was a huge step forward. It enabled us to pay off a high-rate debt that required daily payments and had been a constant struggle.”

With additional working capital on hand, Yvette says, “We could think clearly about how we really wanted to grow and how to reach our desired clientele. When you don’t have to worry about whether or not you can make payroll, you can be more selective in the projects and clients you accept. It makes everything easier, too, especially when you work on projects that have extended receivables cycles, like government projects.”

Continue to grow

Success builds success and today, SRW continues to focus on sustainable growth. With EGF’s assistance, the firm is in the process of applying for a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, developing financial analyses and projections and refining their business plan. SRW’s team has also attended many of the workshops that EGF and partnering agencies have presented in New York City.

Yvette concludes by saying, “Our firm’s work is stronger because SRW approaches everything as a team. That’s reflective of our commitment to our communities and also our relationship with EGF. We all do better when we work together.”