Former Washington State University president Glenn Terrell remembers an early-1970s encounter with Carlton Lewis that epitomized their relationship. The first African-American student body president-he served consecutive terms from 1970 to 1972-had a distinctive presence and sported a half-afro that complemented a large pair of round spectacles. Terrell recalls that as Lewis approached him one day, his eyes were focused on the prexy’s wingtip shoes. “Daddy, you’ve got to get rid of those wing tips,” Lewis told him.
“Carlton taught me that I had no business wearing wing tip shoes,” Terrell says with a laugh. It was a moment of levity during an otherwise turbulent time-a moment, he says, that symbolized the ease with which Lewis acted as a bridge between a vocal and sometimes demanding student body and the University administration. Little about the years from 1968 to 1972 could be considered easy or ordinary, not the least of which was Lewis himself. Terrell remembers him as one among a half-dozen students whose presence was “important to the welfare of WSU as an institution.”
Today, Lewis lives in the heart of the historic U Street corridor in Washington, D.C.-his home since 1976-and presides over the DevCorp Consulting Corporation that he founded in 1992. While his afro may be gone and his glasses a bit more understated, he says many of the lessons he learned walking a tightrope between the students he served and the WSU administration remain close to him even after more than 30 years.
Looking back, Lewis recalls that the involvement of the United States in Vietnam absorbed much of WSU’s energy in the early 1970s. It was an issue that had consequences for many young men enrolled at WSU, including Lewis himself. Late 1969 brought the draft lottery system, a rigidly fair mechanism whereby conscripts were chosen at random and generally without regard to student status. “My sophomore year I got my draft number. I was terrified,” Lewis recalls. Having witnessed his own father serve two tours in Vietnam in the U.S. Army, Lewis had every reason to be anxious about his future. He was not alone.
Issues related to the rights of racial minorities also dominated both the Pullman campus and the national political scene during those years. Lewis and Terrell both remember how WSU students and faculty alike were active in pressuring the administration to increase recruitment of minority students and create new academic programs, such as Black Studies.
After graduating (’72 Political Sci.), Lewis earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington. Then he moved to Washington, D.C., and got his first taste of business in the public sector working for a trade group that represented cities. He recalls that the business environment in the nation’s capital at that time was particularly friendly to the concept of private businesses working in tandem with government. Figuring he had little to lose, he started his first company, SRA Technologies, a firm that specialized in life-sciences consulting. When the employees bought out the company, he founded DevCorp.
DevCorp functions as a project manager for cities and municipalities that seek to involve small, often minority-owned contractors in large construction projects. When asked exactly what DevCorp does, Lewis tells a not-so-nostalgic tale of how programs meant to encourage minority business participation used to operate.
“A lot of these programs were built on either set-asides or mandatory subcontracting. We had a natural clash in the old days. . . . In many cases, the owner, the public owner, with the best of intentions, forced a lot of incompetent or not qualified companies down [other] companies’ throats.” The consequence, Lewis says, was that “even qualified companies couldn’t get their fair day.”
DevCorp differs from these programs. Instead of promoting untested or financially unstable contractors to municipal clients, it provides financial guarantees to companies that meet its own criteria. Armed with DevCorp’s financial backing and other bidding prerequisites such as bonding and insurance requirements, the small contractor is in a position to compete for contracts against larger, more established contractors.
While DevCorp extends a helping hand to small contractors, the practical reality of staying in business often means drawing lines. “We’ve become really tough-love-minded,” Lewis explains. “We don’t do anything until the contractors pre-qualify, until they meet the financial floor. . . . We have to do that just to protect ourselves.”
Lewis believes in government programs that set aside contracts for small or disadvantaged contractors, but with an important caveat: “They’ve got to have teeth,” an attribute he says is lacking in many of the programs he has seen. “They don’t have teeth, because the folks running them don’t understand business.” Reverting back to DevCorp’s tough-love sensibilities, he makes it clear that he has little tolerance for set-aside programs that do not deliver a quality product or service. “It’s not just walking in with your shovel. It’s understanding how to do business in the public sector, which is an arcane beast.”
Since 1994 DevCorp has assisted small contractors in obtaining more than 500 contracts on a wide spectrum of municipal projects. And more than 100 companies that began through involvement with DevCorp are still in existence, Lewis says. Despite a busy travel and work schedule, he still finds time to attend to his impressive collection of high-end audio equipment and vinyl recordings, a hobby that dates back to his WSU days.
Reflecting on the years he spent in the business world and in Pullman, he credits the opportunities he had to interact with University officials as among his most valuable lessons. “I had sat there, you know, and gone toe-to-toe with some of the finest minds in our state. Most of the time I held my own. Other times I got my rumpus kicked. . . . So I was convinced, intellectually, there were very few things I couldn’t get or go find out how to get done. That’s how I look back on my experience at WSU.”
Brian Gunn (’95 Comparative American Studies) is an attorney who lives and works in Washington, D.C.