Interview: how the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is working for a more inclusive future

Keith D Wright PhD is Director of Business Diversity for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). The Port Authority’s capital plan provides around US$37bn in capital investment to fund more than 600 projects.

Each year, the Port Authority relies on hundreds of minority, women-owned, small and disadvantaged business enterprises (MWSDBEs), as well as service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOBs), to help deliver its services and projects. 

Here, Keith explains the thinking behind PANYNJ’s diversity programmes. 

Keith 932 X 621

Keith D Wright PhD Director of Business Diversity, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

What is your role at PANYNJ?

I focus on the external business community and our engagement with them, working to provide opportunities for MWSDBEs and SDVOBs to showcase their skillset and be part of the major works we have underway at our 26 facilities across the region.

After certification, our compliance unit ensures their viability and fitness for purpose, before, through capacity building, introducing them to our processes and helping them grow. This is my focus and my passion, and I’m surrounded by a great team.

What does inclusivity mean to PANYNJ?

We want the people working on our projects and services to match the demographics of those living and working where those projects and services take place.

We must ensure that there is no exclusion to anyone who is ready, willing and able to work – inclusivity means bringing all the community to bear on our projects and services, providing them the opportunity to participate.

Can you share an example of diversity and inclusion being developed at its best?

I'm a bit biased about this example, but it is an important one.

One thing we heard from the industry in 2018 was that there was a great deal of focus going into developing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in relation to construction, but very little going into architecture and engineering.

So, we created training programmes that targeted owners of MWSDBE architecture, engineering and construction management companies.

From that initiative, a well-established cohort grew, which, today, is built up of around 60 firms. We have helped them scale, familiarised them with our systems, and helped with their marketing and HR. As a bonus, one cohort created an organisation called the Council of Black Architects and Engineers. I believe this is a direct outcome of the work we started.

What mechanisms are in place to ensure your people and supply chain are embracing inclusivity?

One thing my former teacher, diversity officer and mentor, Michael Massiah – who had an illustrious career at the Port Authority – said before he left, was: “make sure the changes we were making were codified”.

We therefore created an executive manual that was signed off by our Executive Director. This included all the policies and procedures from a DE&I perspective to share across the organisation.

In 2018, our Board of Commissioners agreed that, for all procurements, there would be a goal of 30 percent MWSDBE participation. Other interventions included developing unconscious bias training, and we changed our request for proposal (RFP) language so that it incorporated all firms – not just construction companies.

Now, contractors must achieve 30 percent MWSDBEs across each project, including design, operations and maintenance.

How important are your Employee Business Resource Groups in supporting DE&I?

Once known as ‘affinity groups’ when they started 20 years ago, their purpose was to bring MWSDBE employees together in the company, to give them a level of comfort and speak with a louder voice. They evolved into an important resource – aligning communities with our business.

I would encourage businesses to put some real focus into these kinds of groups. We have nine different resource groups now, which we manage and fund.

What challenges do you see when it comes to inclusivity, and how can they be addressed? 

One challenge is defining the narrative that we are presenting, internally and externally. You have the MWSDBE community looking for the opportunity, but they are not getting the opportunities commensurate with their numbers. Then, you have some prime contractors that hide behind capacity. 

They say that the MWSDBE firms cannot do what they do, which is true. MWSDBE companies may not be able to take on US$10bn or US$20bn contracts like the primes can, but they can take on US$10m or US$25m opportunities. 

So, the question becomes: how do you break bread with the two different sides? Opportunity builds capacity. Big companies did not get big overnight, somebody helped them grow. So, it really is about the narrative. When we say we want to be inclusive, we must be intentional about it. 

Can you tell us about a recent project where you intervened, and how that intervention was made?

When we were approached to do Newark Liberty International Airport’s new US$2.7bn Terminal A, we were behind the eight ball. The 1m square foot facility represents the single-largest investment in the PANYNJ’s history, and we had a problem: we didn’t have a good crop of MWBE firms on board.

What did we do? We went to work, and we did it the old-fashioned way. We started cold calling anybody who was doing any type of work that was needed for the terminal. We started with some 2,100 firms and, in the end, identified less than 100 that were able to work at the required level.

We did, however, achieve significant MWSDBE participation – close to US$1bn worth of contracts.

How successful have you been at integrating DE&I best practice at PANYNJ?

The Port Authority has been actively engaged in growing DE&I for a quarter of a century now. Of course, after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020, there was an increased focus by many companies on what we all needed to do better.

First, we had an internal conversations, holding 2,400 interviews asking employees how they felt about our DE&I policies and what they felt we could be doing more as a company.

We also created an MWSDBE taskforce. This was where our Executive Director and department Directors meet monthly to identify challenges and work to resolve them.

We have been running this for three years and have addressed many issues that were seen as barriers, such as the language used in RFPs and prompt payment, which can be a huge difficulty for small firms.

Another success has been our community outreach centres. A lot of our facilities are in minority communities. While we are immensely proud of the economic engine that our facilities represent – airports, tunnels and bridges – we understand the impact these have on local people.

Outreach centres make sure we keep our eye on the ball, to make sure local communities reap the benefits – not only economically, but also socially, as we hear their views about what a facility should look like.

What can the infrastructure industry learn from others when it comes to DE&I? 

There is a saying in our community: ‘lift as we climb’. 

To me, this means that we can all learn from each other and must be open and available to have direct conversations about DE&I – helping each other better themselves and their practices as we go. 

For further information contact:

Charlene Singh
Global Business Generation Lead, Infrastructure

t: +44 7939 981267