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Deborah M. Sawyer

Environmental scientist and civil engineer Deborah Mabel Sawyer was born May 11, 1956, in Columbus, Ohio. Sawyer received her B.A. degree in political science from Emory University and her M.S. degree in petroleum microbiology from Eastern New Mexico University.

Sawyer began her career as an environmental scientist for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. From 1986 to 1989, Sawyer worked as an environmental scientist for the Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Division of The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in Columbus, Ohio. Sawyer also entered the private sector in 1986 where she worked as an associate and Midwest operations manager for the URS Corporation in Columbus. Sawyer then became senior vice president, board member & operations manager for the Solid, Toxic, and Hazardous Waste Management Division of Beling Consultants, Inc., in Moline, Illinois, from 1988 through 1990. Sawyer briefly served as the operations manager for the Toxic and Hazardous Waste Management Division of Environmental S/E, Inc. in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Sawyer then founded her own company, Environmental Design International (EDI), in 1991. The firm had 100 employees, three offices in Illinois and one in Ohio, and an annual revenue of nearly $10 million. EDI provided direction to project managers for solid, toxic, hazardous, and industrial waste, and industrial hygiene projects. Her company held some eighty state and local certifications in seven Midwest states and several federal departments. EDI’s client base included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Chicago Public Schools among others. From 2006 through 2007, EDI worked on Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway Reconstruction Project through a $70 million contract for construction inspection.

Sawyer belonged to the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois and the Consulting Engineers Council of Illinois. Sawyer was a member of many boards of directors and was honored with numerous awards. She received the U.S. Small Business Administration's Minority Small Business Person of the Year Award at the district, regional and national levels in 1994. Governor George Ryan appointed Sawyer to the Illinois Institute for Entrepreneurship Education in 2001. She also joined the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ board of directors in 2005.

Sawyer passed away on August 8, 2016.

Accession Number

A2008.143

Sex

Female

Interview Date

11/23/2008

Last Name

Sawyer

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

Eastgate Elementary School

Columbus School for Girls

Emory University

Eastern New Mexico University

First Name

Deborah

Birth City, State, Country

Columbus

HM ID

SAW02

Favorite Season

Christmas

State

Ohio

Favorite Vacation Destination

Greece

Favorite Quote

Don't Let Other People's Perceptions Of You Become Reality.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Birth Date

5/11/1956

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Fajitas

Death Date

8/8/2016

Short Description

Environmental entrepreneur Deborah M. Sawyer (1956 - 2016 ) founded Environmental Design International, a firm that advises on solid, toxic, hazardous, and industrial waste disposal. Sawyer received the U.S. Small Business Administration's Minority Small Business Person of the Year Award at the district, regional and national levels in 1994. Sawyer passed away on August 8, 2016.

Employment

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency

URS Corporation

Beling Engineering Consultants

Environmental Design International

Favorite Color

Lavender

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Deborah Sawyer's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Deborah Sawyer lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Deborah Sawyer describes her maternal family history

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her mother, Betty Pride Sawyer

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Deborah Sawyer describes her paternal family history

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her father, William Sawyer and how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her parents' personalities and whom she takes after

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Deborah Sawyer describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood in Columbus, Ohio

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Deborah Sawyer describes her grade school years

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the role of church in her upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Deborah Sawyer describes her experience at the Columbus School for Girls

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Deborah Sawyer describes her experience on St. Simons Island as a high school student

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Deborah Sawyer remembers her travels to France as a high school student

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the demographics of the Columbus School for Girls in Columbus, Ohio when she was a student

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Deborah Sawyer talks about public housing in the 1960s and 1970s

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Deborah Sawyer describes her experiences of racial discrimination at the Columbus School for Girls

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Deborah Sawyer remembers influential teachers from the Columbus School for Girls

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her extracurricular activities at the Columbus School for Girls

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Deborah Sawyer describes her decision to attend Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Deborah Sawyer describes her experience at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Deborah Sawyer describes Atlanta, Georgia during the 1970s

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Deborah Sawyer remembers getting waitlisted for medical school and enrolling at Ohio State University

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Deborah Sawyer describes her graduate studies at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, New Mexico

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Deborah Sawyer talks about hazardous waste disasters

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her work as a graduate student researcher and her thesis project

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Deborah Sawyer describes her work with URS Corporation and Beling Engineering Consultants

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the dearth of African Americans in engineering and the sciences

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Deborah Sawyer shares a memorable experience from her tenure at URS Corporation

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her experiences of racial discrimination in the industry

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Deborah Sawyer talks about why she left Beling Engineering Consultants

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the beginning of her business, Environmental Design International

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Deborah Sawyer describes the challenges she encountered financing her business, Environmental Design International

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her first big project at Environmental Design International

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the Dan Ryan Expressway project

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the Dan Ryan Expressway Reconstruction Project and construction materials

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Deborah Sawyer talks about an air monitoring project on the Dan Ryan Expressway

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the permeable pavement parking lot at White Sox Park

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Deborah Sawyer describes one of her favorite projects

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Deborah Sawyer talks about the future of Environmental Design International

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Deborah Sawyer describes what she would do differently in her career

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Deborah Sawyer reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Deborah Sawyer talks about obstacles she faced as a black businesswoman in the construction industry

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Deborah Sawyer describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Deborah Sawyer talks about her family

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Deborah Sawyer talks about how she would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

7$7

DATitle
Deborah Sawyer talks about her experiences of racial discrimination in the industry
Deborah Sawyer describes one of her favorite projects
Transcript
Okay. So, any other stories from this--did this happen often or this is like one time you had to do this?$$It could happen, well, what I learned to do, what I learned from that experience was, I started going around to all the what I call "chocolate cities" and marketing that. And then the chocolate city was any city with a black mayor, black city manager, whatever. I made it my business to know where those cities were. And then, it worked in my favor; went to Springfield, Ohio. They had a black city manager, Gerald Seals. Black and Veatch, another big international engineering firm, had done their waste water engineering since 1956. I remember that because that's the year I was born. Anyway, went down there and marketed, marketed, marketed, marketed, and ended up winning a lot of work for URS [Corporation] down there because they felt very comfortable working with me. They trusted me. And so that, you know, for as much as I didn't win because of how I looked, I learned to go seek out work with people that would want to work with me because I would make them, I could aspire trust quickly, and they would wanna work with me. We all wanna work with people we like and that we feel comfortable with and that we trust. So it took me a minute to really make that work to my advantage.$$Okay, so once you sorted it out, you knew where to go and, you know, you have to be able to get the job to be able to (unclear) (simultaneous)--$$Right, and then when I needed to take somebody with me. I mean I can't tell you how many times I was sitting in a waiting room waiting for a client to come usher me into the inner sanctum and I'd be the only one out there. And he would, the guy would say to whoever the receptionist was, oh, I thought you said "Ms. Sawyer was here." And I would say, Dude, I am here. And he'd be like, and you know what they're thinking, ooh, but you didn't sound black. I mean that could be the only answer because I'm sitting right there, and he was expecting me, and he knew I was sitting out there waiting for him. But yet it couldn't possibly be, I couldn't possibly be the person that the person was waiting to see. That's happened way more than once. And a much more recent story was with, because I got a million of 'em, was with a facilities manager for a national airline who shall remain nameless, it may be one your sponsors, and the guy said to me, I was trying to, you know, set up a meeting, and was trying to tell him what I did to make sure I was actually with the right manager for the, you know, right services. And I usually give pretty good phone. I mean that's why I get, I get almost every meeting I try to get. So I'm talking to this guy, and told him that we were a minority and female owned company, blah, blah, blah. And he basically said, you know what, I don't hire people like you for complicated services like this. And what do you say to a line like that? And I just said, well, what kind of services do you hire people like me for? He said, you know, basically, you can clean my toilet--$$That's what he actually said?$$Well, actually, he said janitorial services were his exact words. He said janitorial services, and he said, and I would let a firm like yours reply to a spec for some widgets, but that would be about it. And all I could say is like, you know, thank you very much. Have a nice day because what do you say to somebody who is, who is that okay with his racism that he can actually voice it. And this was in the '90s [1990s]. That could have been 1995 or 1997. So, like I said, we've come so far; we've got so far to go.$Okay, now, those are the projects we said we were gonna talk about, but are there any others you wanna discuss before--?$$Well, one of my favorite projects of all-time, we were the engineer of record for the demolition of Cook County Hospital, which is actually still standing. But it was amazing when they opened the new Stroger Hospital, they literally, one day all the patients were here and the next day, all the patients were across the street. They literally left the beds, all the equipment, all the needles were still in the boxes on the walls. And they were gonna have to pay to get rid of all that stuff. Well, our project manager, Rudy Angelucci who was from Brazil, came up with a wonderful idea. And he did this all, did all the research on his own. We didn't get paid for it, but he found two African third-world countries and one South American third-world country that came in and took away a lot of the equipment. So (a), the county didn't have to pay to dispose of it, and these countries felt that they were getting manna from heaven. I mean this was wonderful equipment to them. So, you know, the saying that some people's trash is other people's treasure, they were so grateful to come and take this equipment away. And it ended up saving the county millions of dollars that they would have had to pay in disposal.$$Let me ask this question, and I'm trying to guess as to why this would be an issue, but was it that the design of the new hospital precluded the use of the old equipment or what? Why would they have to get new equipment, you know, as well as a new facility?$$I'm not sure, but, you know, equipments have different sizes and blah, blah, blah and sometimes it's easier just to start from scratch.$$It would seem like some equipment, like syringes and stuff you mentioned, I mean those could be used anywhere. I mean I don't know.$$No, no, the syringes hadn't actually been used, but my point was literally, it was almost like, it was not like. One day it was here and the next day, everything was there. And I won't begin to say what the philosophy is, but I know that you can't give equipment away though because a lot of the equipment had hazardous material and they have mercury in them. They have radioactive sources, blah, blah, blah. So you can't give that stuff away or you maintain a liability. But by them coming to get it, like we could not have shipped it to them. We would have maintained liability for it forever. When they come and get it and take it away, we sever our liability or the County severed its liability at the point where they signed on the dotted line. So I understand why it had to happen that way. Why they didn't take any of the old equipment across the street? I guess they had a brand, spanking new hospital and didn't want any old equipment there. It's easy to, equipment can be damaged in moving. Would what they have saved, the equipment has "x" shelf life. The cost of the move, to move it across the street would have been "x". So at what point is it a point of diminishing returns. I don't know. I'm sure they made all those calculations when they decided to leave it.