Which federal agency does the second largest amount of business with private contractors? Which federal agency runs a network of national laboratories that are a veritable treasure trove of technological breakthroughs and business opportunities? Dot Harris wants everyone to know the answer to those questions: the Department of Energy (DOE).
Harris is an assistant secretary overseeing the DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Her responsibilities include helping to develop the department’s expanding small business contracting opportunities and protecting the civil rights of both department employees and those who work for companies that are DOE contractors.
Before coming to the federal government, Harris, a graduate of the University of South Carolina and Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga., spent nearly three decades working in the energy sector, including as president and CEO of Jabo Industries, an energy, IT and healthcare consulting firm.
Previously, she had been an executive at General Electric, working in the conglomerate’s energy and industrial systems businesses. Among other things, she has also worked as an engineer for Westinghouse.
Since she came to DOE earlier this year, Harris’s office has hosted a program that pairs students with DOE offices. She also has led a series of regional small business summits at the DOE’s national laboratories in an effort to hear from area small businesses about how the department can provide better support.
Her office also works with minority-serving institutions to connect them with the national laboratories and help the schools commercialize some of the laboratory-scale technologies coming out of the labs. The idea is to grow new businesses and train the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The office also works to increase minority-owned business entrepreneurship and access to contracts—which is no small thing. In 2011, the Department of Energy supported $8 billion in prime and sub-prime contracting to small businesses across the country.
USBE&IT magazine recently talked with Harris about her new job. The conversation follows here:
USBE&IT: What is the biggest hurdle that Black businesses run into trying to win Department of Energy contracts?
Harris: I don’t think they are any different than the problems faced by other minority or ethnic groups. Part of the issue is knowing where in the agency to look. We have 17 laboratories in our portfolio. DOE is second to the Department of Defense in the number of contracts we let every year. We’ve done quite a bit with small businesses. I’ve done a number of listening sessions across the country. I’ve been with a number of minority national contracting associations. I’ve been with the Black mayors. The thing I hear from a lot of small and minority businesses is just knowing who to go to and having that connection to not only to bid on contracts but having some personal connection to the procurement guys. We have to mend that a lot with many listening sessions we have. In some of them, we invite buyers and procurement folk. Putting faces with names and all that helps [and] having businesses understand through presentations we do have contracts supporting our facilities. We have procurement managers put on sessions to tell small business people about upcoming contracts. We are helping minority businesses through regional small business conferences. That has been a way for us to sit in front of small businesses and have these matchmaking sessions.
USBE&IT: So you find that these are effective?
USBEIT: What is the biggest problem that HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and other minority-serving institutions face in trying to work with the national labs and trying to win some of the lucrative collaborations that the big boys have?
Harris: That is one of the focus areas I am taking here, to try to have minority-serving institutions work more closely with our labs. One strategy we have is we do a pretty interesting collaboration between our labs and minority-serving institutions and pulling in small businesses. One thing we are focusing on is minority technology transfer and commercialization. That is where we have the labs, which house our engineering jewels, connect with the schools. There is a lot of technology that exists in the labs that we are making more available to our minority-serving institutions in conjunction with our small businesses. We have identified maybe three or four labs already where we have minority-serving institutions partner with them and small businesses. We try to include K-12 schools. At Clark Atlanta University, for example, we have a sustainable energy program funded there. Part of that program brings in students by the busload to come work with the college and learn more about green energy. We have small businesses partner with the school and they, in turn, can provide student internships. The end result for me is the economic impact of creating jobs. This becomes a partnership between the DOE and schools and giving the schools an opportunity to do more than just research. The whole idea here is to identify a technology that can be transferable for commercial use.
USBE&IT: Is there any one area that is more promising than another for small minority businesses to focus on?
Harris: It could be any source of energy. There is a lot in the oil and gas industry, which has been underwhelmed by participation from minorities. We had one organization visit us and say that they are not getting enough interest from the minority business community for that industry. We’ll be working closely with them on the technology and trying to get small businesses interested as well as students when they get out of college.
USBE&IT: Is this direct effort enough to get more students and Black businesses involved in these and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industries, or is there more that needs to be done?
Harris: It is just taking these things head on that is required. We have a number of STEM-membership programs for college undergraduates focused on women. We are going straight into the community, working with women and girls in particular. Along those lines, we have a specific partnership we are seeking with Susan Taylor. She founded this national mentoring program (National Cares Mentoring Movement). She is doing some phenomenal work around STEM mentorship. She has visited DOE and other agencies. We have discussed supporting her and other programs like that.
USBE&IT: Why is it that some schools—many HBCUs, and places like the University of Maryland Baltimore County—do a much better job than others producing minority STEM graduates?
Harris: I can’t speak for the schools. But I know we were working with some HBCUs. Secretary Chu and I recently visited Delaware State University, which was selected to be one of five schools to participate in an energy efficiency program. That was fantastic. That school has a phenomenal program. In fact, when I was meeting recently with presidents of HBCUs, to talk strategies and about ways that government can continue to support them, I used Delaware State as a model that they should pay more attention to. And their secret sauce was that they have really reached across the table to their government officials to support them. When I am sitting in a meeting and the governor stands up to talk about how the school has gone from a college to a university and how the president is doing phenomenal things, that is important. They were just arm in arm with the university. They got a whole lot of support and that helps.
USBE&IT: Talk about your own path. What made you want to be an engineer?
Harris: It started with the influence of my chemistry teacher in high school. I was planning on being an English teacher. I had skipped my senior year because I was one of those nerdy students who had taken all my courses—the physics, the algebra, the calculus and all of that. I was finished. But in my last term, we took a trip to the Savannah River nuclear plant. They were talking about how engineering was opening up for women and for young people. They talked about all the travel and money to be made. Engineering, as you know, remains the top-paying undergraduate major you can take. I literally switched my plans right after that field trip. A trip to the plant changed my life.
USBE&IT: Why did you want to work for the federal government after such a long, successful career in the private sector?
Harris: It is one of those moments in your life where you want to leave a legacy. The timing was also good. I have been working with entrepreneurs quite a bit, being on the board of the American Association of Blacks in Energy. A job like this afforded me the opportunity to touch not only African-American businesses, but also all kinds of small businesses. Education is big for me. So what better agency to help me continue my mentorship and support of young kids in STEM?