Alumni Spotlight: Robert P. Madison International

Robert-P-Madison-Team-PhotoRobert Klann learned that he was not awarded an important contract because of his presentation. “We were told in the debrief that we lost the opportunity because the presentation didn’t ‘wow’ them.”

This was not just any contract, but one in a new market that was key to his company’s growth strategy – higher education institutions. “We’ve been learning that the old way of going in and presenting isn’t necessarily what the next generation is after. We’re presenting to a younger audience. We would get short listed and reach the interview round because of our qualifications and what we’ve done, but we weren’t taking advantage of these interview opportunities in the right way.”

Robert led his team at Robert P. Madison International, Ohio's first African American-owned architectural firm (and 10th in the nation,) to focus on business presentations. He invested some capital in sample presentations that are customizable, current, and visually appealing. Armed with new visual tools, he reshaped his approach to the business presentation as a whole. He carefully customizes each presentation to each client; he is now the main presenter, engaging his team for introductions and Q&A, rather than a popcorn-style presentation; and they prepare, prepare, prepare. (Check out our webinar on Tips to Becoming an Effective Speaker in iConnect for more insights on business presentations.) He has noticed an incredible shift in the reception of their presentations –clients are now wow-ed by their work and their presentations.


Focusing on this operational element of his business has enabled Robert to more effectively work towards his company’s vision: architecture that improves lives. A solid presentation landed them a project to renovate and restore Karamu House, the oldest operating African American theater in the United States. “This project hit home for us because it has an educational component. The theater is located in a community that’s underserved, outside of downtown, and we were so fortunate to get involved.”

In fact, this project is a contestant in the 2018 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Film Festival, which invited architects and filmmakers to collaborate in telling stories of architects, civic leaders, and their communities working together toward positive community impact. "Karamu deserves to be recognized on a National Level; too often we take things in our own backyard for granted. This is an opportunity to put Karamu, Cleveland, and a local architecture firm in a national spotlight." Watch the video and vote here!

Robert has been with Robert P. Madison as an architect for 25 years. When he became a co-owner with his business partner, Sandra Madison, in March 2016, they realized that being trained architects was not the same as being experts in business management! They worked hard to realign their new growth strategy with their vision, and brought their team of 12 into the process. Through a program with Greater Cleveland Partnership, Robert and his team spent 4 months building their mission and vision. The program culminated in a presentation to a board of CEOs, including representatives from Cleveland Clinic and Metro Hospital, who now serve as mentors.

Robert P. Madison International is being recognized this year as a Weatherhead 100 fastest growing firm and was also the SBA’s District Minority-Owned Firm of the Year for 2018. They are looking to partner with two national firms on GSA projects and are offering some pro-bono work to another nonprofit in Florida. They are serving on boards and pursuing new business opportunities that both grow their company and serve their vision: architecture that improves lives.

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Alumni Spotlight: GCI Solutions, LLC

Gina Diaz

Houston, TX


Partnering To Scale

Gina Diaz knows how to leverage her networks to get new contracts. She and her son and business partner, Casey Simien, just completed the Build Up Houston (BUH) program, delivered through a partnership between Interise and the City of Houston. Gina approaches partnering for bids as more than a sub-contracting opportunity – for her, it is also an opportunity for mentorship. She has partnered with larger construction firms, such as Gadberry Construction (Interise Dallas alum) and Texas Pride (Build Up Houston alum,) to build her company’s capacity and expand into new markets. She has observed how they approach bidding, competitors, and properly training employees. These partnerships have allowed Gina and Casey to build the capacity, confidence, and networks to go after larger contracts themselves.

“My biggest learning from working with these companies is how important it is to understand the client and make sure that marketing is good. It’s not just about giving the lowest number.” With admiration for how these two companies approach their growth – a direct result of their experiences writing and implementing growth plans through their Interise programs – Gina and Casey applied for the Build Up Houston program themselves. “At the beginning of the program, we used to show up in construction gear, coming directly from the work sites,” said Gina. They were both completely involved in day to day, on-site operations. “At the end of the program, we told our classmates, ‘Look! We aren’t in our work boots!’ We put systems in place and didn’t have to have our hands in everything.”

Some other notable achievements during the last 7 months while in the class include:

  • Hiring 5 full-time employees, with 10 additional new hires planned for 4th quarter
  • Securing 4 new contracts (2 are subcontracts with Build Up Houston Alumni), totaling $1,075,000 in new contracts
  • Negotiated a few partnerships with Primes for work in Houston, Dallas and Austin markets.
  • Secured a line of credit, an equipment loan, and a capital loan, all to support her growth

Gina’s biggest takeaway from the Build Up Houston class is: “Develop and Work the Plan…Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail! After 7 months [in the class,] we now have a comprehensive detailed roadmap for implementing our growth strategy to include: branding, marketing and sales, financial management, hiring, recruiting and resource planning, government contracting.”

With their growth strategy in place, Gina and Casey are eager to grow their commitment to their community as well. They run an apprentice program for training women and minorities with careers in construction and giving individuals with criminal or misdemeanor records a second chance. This commitment to serving her community is actually what drove Gina to leave a construction management career of over 20-years in corporate America to start her own business.

Gina recognizes the value of cultivating relationships with other construction companies, classmates, local government agencies, capacity builders, and her own team. “The City, quasi agencies, Interise, Houston Community College and Build Up Houston 2018 colleagues are all valuable assets for growing our business. We were already aware and appreciative of the City of Houston’s commitment to small businesses and the BUH program added to that commitment and helped us to dig deeper to develop a detailed roadmap to implementing our growth strategy.”

Alumni Spotlight: Perez, APC


new-orleans-1630343 1280


A Story of Resilience

Perez is a 75-year-old business and according to Mary Alexander, Chief Financial Officer of Perez, “It’s the second-oldest architecture firm in New Orleans,” where it is based out of the French Quarter. Before 2005, most of its contracts were in and around New Orleans. In 2005, however, Hurricane Katrina hit the South Coast. Almost all of their business was either put on hold or destroyed in the devastation. The Perez office itself, in the northern part of the quarter, suffered damage as well. 

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Alumni Spotlight: Bon Bon Bon

Alex-Clark-Headshot-Shot-by-Brad-ZieglerYearning for Chocolate in Detroit

At the age of fourteen, Alexandra Clark knew what she wanted to do with her life: create and sell sweets. “I loved the interaction that people have when they’re buying sweets,” Alex recalls. “It’s so fun!”

After graduating college, she left her home state of Michigan to pursue her craft in places as far off as Norway, New Zealand, and in the North American cities of Vancouver, Aspen, Chicago, and Boston. “For eight years, I moved on average every six months.” But when it came to starting her own business, Alex knew she had to return to Michigan. 

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Alumni Spotlight: The Leading Niche

Tamara Nall LinkedIn PhotoIn 2007, Tamara Nall had a successful career at a corporate consulting firm. She was six months away from getting promoted to a top position. But not everything was as perfect as it seemed: “I worked twenty hours a day – that does not include eating, bathing, sleeping. I had gotten to the point where there was a lot of bureaucracy and hierarchy to getting things done.”

That year, she decided that she would soon resign and founded The Leading Niche. Tamara felt that “there was a need in the market for a high-caliber small business/professional services company but with a big business approach.” She aimed to start a nimble and more flexible business that could provide clients with recommendations in far less time than larger and more bureaucratic firms could. Although she was motivated to leave her corporate job by a culture that she disliked, she soon learned that culture is something every business owner must work on.

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Alumni Spotlight: Apprio Inc.

DarrylBritt-hi 1Overcoming the Odds: Winning Federal Contracts 

It’s estimated that $400 billion in products and services are purchased every year by the federal government. Gaining access to this huge market has enormous potential for small businesses, but that takes capacity-building. When it comes to going after a federal contract, Darryl Britt, CEO of Apprio Inc., notes that “most of us small business owners aren’t salesmen, and there’s a little bit of call reluctance.”

His business, Apprio Inc., provides technology solutions, program management and program support for a growing base of federal clients in the healthcare and emergency response sectors. Today, Apprio boasts substantial contracts with federal agencies such as FEMA, USAID and the Department of Health and Human Services, but when Darryl founded the business back in 1998, he worked with smaller commercial clients only. After 10 years without substantial business growth, Apprio was a $2 million business with only one federal contract and two other employees.  

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