City and Columbia Expand Certificate Program for Minority, Women and Locally Owned Businesses

September 06, 2011

Sharon Sinaswee, who owns Armada Building Services in Harlem, has participated in a number of professional development courses for small business owners.  

But Columbia's construction trades management certificate program, from which she graduated May 23rd, stands out, she said. "The work we did in class was so very practical and I learned from conversations with my partners--we're all in the same industry," said Sinaswee, who was selected to speak at the graduation.  

The program is already paying off for Armada, which just completed a large painting job at 415 Riverside Drive, a Columbia-owned residence. "For a Harlem business, being recognized by Columbia is a very big thing," Sinaswee said.  

She is one of 25 professionals from 19 firms who earned certificates this year from a joint Columbia University-New York City Small Business Services mentorship program for minority, women and local entrepreneurs. The nine-month program's curriculum is based on the School of Continuing Education's highly successful master of science in construction administration.  

Since the program's inception in January 2008, professionals from nearly 50 firms have graduated and garnered more than $32 million in construction trades work, including jobs with the city and Columbia. "From the beginning, our vision was to create a program that would benefit minority, women and local firms in the construction trades industry and at the same time help identify firms that might be able to work with Columbia or other large institutional firms," said Joe Ienuso, executive vice president at Columbia University Facilities. "We have been successful in both regards."  

Participants are trained in such topics as marketing and communications, disputes and negotiations, insurance and bonds as well as project planning and sustainability. They are assigned mentors, who are building and business experts from banks, unions and large construction firms.  

"The program touches on every aspect of how to create a business," said Roxanne Tzitzikalakis, who graduated in the first cohort in 2008. "Class projects gave us a chance to connect schooling with the practical aspects of running a business. You can't grow a company without a strong foundation."

A total of 25 professionals from 19 firms earned certificates from the mentorship program this year.

Now, New York City's Small Business Services is building on the program and expanding it as part of its Corporate Alliance Program, which aims to connect program participants to contracting opportunities in the private sector.  

"The City has made tremendous progress in expanding the opportunities available to minority and women business owners under Mayor Bloomberg's leadership," said Rob Walsh, commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services. "Partnering with Columbia was one of the ways we were able to do that. And we will now take the lessons learned from this three-year experience to create an even better program."  

Tzitzikalakis, CEO of Eagle Two Construction in Brooklyn, says her sales have nearly tripled since participating in the MWL program, and she has hired more than 30 new employees in just two years. While Columbia is currently her biggest client, she is also doing work for SUNY and the State of New York.  

"We know that building your portfolio and diversifying your client list is key to becoming more competitive," said Walsh, the small business commissioner. "The Corporate Alliance Program will offer this edge to the firms that need help building capacity."  

Indeed, Jimmy Moyen, a graduate of this year's cohort, says that the majority of his business now comes from municipalities, and Columbia is his largest private client. As the head of First Choice Mechanical in Queens, he is now exploring a joint venture with a larger mechanical contractor and has secured a small business grant from Goldman Sachs.  

The certificate/mentorship program is part of a larger MWL initiative undertaken by Columbia. The University has a goal that at least 35 percent of all construction dollars be spent with MWL firms and at least 40 percent of the construction labor force made up of MWL employees. "We have one of the most aggressive goals around," La-Verna Fountain, Associate Vice President in Columbia University Facilities, said. "The CAP program will help us by identifying those construction trade firms that are a good match for the University and it will help firms that come through the program by introducing them to potential clients."  

Sinaswee's Armada-which began as a Harlem-based cleaning service in 2006--has expanded to include general contracting work, including tiling, painting and handyman services. In addition to the work at Columbia, Sinaswee's firm is currently working on a large painting project at the Yonkers YWCA. She makes sure to hire from her Harlem neighborhood. 

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The winning team of the final project presentation received an honorary certificate. From left, Coldit Thompson from Architectural Flooring Resource, Inc., Andrea Moyen from First Choice Mechanical, Inc., Fatemeh Modarres from Bita, Inc., Kenneth Shin from K.D.S. Developers, and Roy Wilson, president of Wilson Management Associates, who proudly announced the winners.