CEIE Takes Entrepreneurship to the Federal Government

Posted: April 24, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

Can federal employees think and act like entrepreneurs? Sharon deMonsabert, associate professor in civil, environmental, and infrastructure engineering (CEIE), wasn’t so sure, but she was willing to show the way if they were willing to follow.

Tomorrow, deMonsabert will find out if her gamble has paid off. That’s when the 15 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers students in her CEIE 690 Technical Entrepreneurship in the Federal Government class make their final group project presentations to a panel of government and business executives. The group judged having the most promising business plan for a technical product wins $500, but the real payoff for the winners will be getting the chance to make their case before the Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, in the hopes that he will agree to make their proposal a reality.

The five entrepreneurial projects that the class will present are all designed to improve their agency’s operations: consolidating Corps’ capabilities into districts by specialty (e.g., having all fire specialists in one district rather than having them spread out over 16 different ones); modifying the Corps’ travel request system; developing a web portal with a powerful search engine that would specifically support engineering information; establishing a center for independent review of all Corps products deployed to the field; and developing the next-generation contracting vehicle for the environmental program to support the military base closure program.

Review panelists include Tom Krappweis, president-elect of the Century Club of George Mason, who is senior systems engineering manager for BAE Systems, a global defense contractor; and Tom Gillespie, chief operating officer and cofounder of LaunchFuel, a Reston, Va., company that supports new business ventures. Other panelists are members of the Corps management team: Col. Joseph Schroedel, chief of staff; Don Basham, chief of the Engineering and Construction Division; and Stephen Coakley, director of resource management.

Based on the progress of the class thus far, deMonsabert has high hopes for the presentations. The class “has gone well beyond my wildest expectations,” she says. “[The students] are like sponges. They keep telling me what an impact it’s making for them, personally and professionally.”

The class came about as a result of deMonsabert’s participation in a leadership forum for the Corps about a year ago. “The Corps had just gone through a lot of changes–they had moved and had a change of command, and morale was kind of low. We did some exercises and a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis, and made it fun.”

The forum generated such excitement that deMonsabert was asked to teach the entrepreneurship course this spring. She was surprised at how quickly the project was embraced. “They got the money for it, they got the students, they found a nice conference room where we could meet. And the students are enthusiastic. There’s good attendance, and they take it seriously.”

While the course is similar to the technical entrepreneurship class deMonsabert has taught at George Mason for the past five years, it is different in several respects. Not only has the content been revised specifically to help transition federal employees from a traditional government perspective to a more entrepreneurial perspective, but the class is presented right at the students’ work site. Once a week, deMonsabert and Mico Miller, CEIE technical assistant, make the trek to the Corps’ downtown Washington headquarters to present the three-hour class.

Having the class on site is very convenient for the students, deMonsabert says, and although preparation and delivery of the class consumes much of her time–two days a week–not to mention the logistical problems involving traffic, parking, and security issues, she feels it is worth the effort. One big help, she points out, is that Mason’s Office of Continuing and Professional Education is coordinating the administrative aspects of the course.

How did deMonsabert adapt the class for a federal government perspective? “The topics are similar but the projects are different,” she says. “The funding issues are completely different, but competition is similar. There are many groups within the federal government competing against one another since you can’t fund duplicate services. And they operate under different restrictions than the private sector.”

One difference that has made the class especially stimulating is the caliber of the students. Most have graduate degrees and are at the GS 13-15 level, with years of experience–the range is 8 to 40 years. Their areas of expertise within engineering are varied and include civil works projects, fire safety, civil engineering, aerospace, and geology. “The bar is set pretty high. Most of these people have prestigious degrees and operate at a high technical level,” notes Miller.

“The Corps is a $14 billion organization,” deMonsabert points out. “Many people don’t realize they operate civil works projects, parks, inland waterways, dams–they even manage the water treatment plant in Washington, D.C.”

Sensing a long-term opportunity to branch out to other groups within the Corps, CEIE will offer a certificate in technical entrepreneurship in the federal government next fall. DeMonsabert will teach the entrepreneurship class again, and a new class, Civil Engineering Information Management, will be offered as part of the certificate program.

Meanwhile, deMonsabert, who is a registered professional engineer and owns an engineering consulting firm, is keeping a journal on the class and plans to write a paper, tentatively titled “Can the Corps Be Entrepreneurial?”

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