Minority Contractors Find Their Voices on Terminal Modernization Program

Raised in family business, Jenee Oliver now guides small businesses on terminal work

By Alyson Walls

Published December 9, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


Jenee Oliver grew up in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, where her family has owned a small trucking business since the 1930s. She grew up hearing about the struggles of small- and minority- business owners.

“Our family trucking garage became an unofficial gathering spot for local community business owners to meet and seek resources to grow their business,” she said.

Helping others succeed became part of Oliver’s DNA, which makes it all the more fitting that she now serves as business diversity and outreach manager for the Allegheny County Airport Authority and, in particular, the Terminal Modernization Program.

“Growing up in a small-business family, I witnessed firsthand the obstacles that these business owners face,” she said.

“I realize that if someone had not removed obstacles for my grandfather more than 60 years ago and took a chance on a small minority-owned business, I probably would not be here today. With this position, I am able to articulate those obstacles to my colleagues at the airport and create solutions to removing them.”

Oliver’s skills are particularly relevant as the authority prepares to advertise for bid packages this spring and summer for construction of the new billion-dollar terminal and multi-use complex. For all contracts, the authority has a 14 percent participation goal for owners of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, known as DBEs.

As the airport ramped up to expand the initiative, longtime administrative assistant Virginia Culbreath joined Oliver as the new TMP DBE coordinator.

“She listened to me and gave me a voice,” she said.

Oliver, Culbreath and other members of their team recently hosted a six-week course for disadvantaged, minority and small business owners to learn how to do business with the ACAA and other government entities.

Kristian Robinson, owner of KI Heavy Construction, said he is interested in making history by helping to build the new airport.

“There’s a huge opportunity there, and as a new company, we know how to build, but we don’t know all of the business aspects and bidding processes,” he said. “It can be challenging, but Jenee and her team are doing everything they can to help us work with the general contractors on this project, and we appreciate that.”

A family calling

Oliver was the only girl in the family and “not that into truck driving,” she said, so her parents encouraged her to focus on her education. She now has three college degrees, including a law degree from Duquesne University. This fall, she’ll start work on a fourth degree, an MBA from Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

In November, new graduates of the six-week DBE Bonding Series course received their certificates of completion. (Photo by Alyson Walls)

True to her family’s entrepreneurial background, after passing the bar exam, Oliver started her own law practice that focused on business and contract law and assisting small business owners. She also did some pro bono criminal defense work for a mid-size Downtown law firm.

But she never strayed far from the calling she first heard in her family’s garage.

As 20 new graduates of the DBE Bonding Series received their certificates of completion last month, it was evident Oliver is expanding the family business in an important way.

“Not only can these business owners bid on airport projects, but now they can bid on any project in the city, so we’re building their capacity,” she said. “We’re getting the message out that we care about DBEs and are offering them support services.”

Brandon Leslie, owner of B and R Plumbing, said he attended the course to take his 21/2-year-old-business to the next level by getting bonded, which means that a company will guarantee completion of contracted work.

“To be able to come in and network and learn about the requirements for the airport project has been very helpful for me and other small business owners who would like to participate,” Leslie said.

The work is rewarding, Oliver said. And while the environment is fast-paced, the airport atmosphere is collaborative, with everyone’s voice valued.

“We get to see the results of everyone’s hard work every time a new flight or project is announced,” she said. “I truly appreciate being part of the airport team.”

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