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Prairie View Mentor-Protege Experience Proves Contracting Is a Realistic Opportunity for HBCUs


Pictured from left are Stephen Brettel, program director, PAE Applied Technology, LLC.; Tabisa Kalisa, program manager, NASA Mentor Protégé Program; Dr. Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University; Robert Watts, Small Business specialist; and Jose Garcia, deputy director, Johnson Space Center's Office of Procurement. Image Credit: NASA

By Brianna Williams

Stephen Brettel of PAE Applied Technologies LLC  insists that it is “absolutely realistic for universities to earn revenue from federal contracts.”  Despite 80 to 90 percent of contracting opportunities going to small businesses, Brettel says to believe otherwise would be absolutely foolish. The opportunity for Historically Black Colleges and Universities is there, it is simply a matter of the institutions being aware and business savvy enough to take advantage of it.

"There is ample opportunity for a smart, assertive institution of higher learning to make a lot of money."

Stephen Brettel

One HBCU in particular that has been a trailblazer in establishing business relationships is Prairie View A&M University. PVAMU has an active 12 month agreement with PAE which consists of the NASA Johnson Space Center prime contractor providing strategic business and technical support to assist the university in attracting larger and more substantial contracts.

According to Donna Elmore-Cole, the senior contracts negotiator at PVAMU,“this strategic partnership with PAE and NASA Johnson Space Center, is a multiple benefit project for our university.”

“It will showcase our innovative technical capabilities, visionary faculty, and provide a gateway to incredible opportunities for students’ academics and career aspirations,” Elmore Cole said. “Further, it will position PVAMU to secure future revenue streams that will support our steady and continued growth.”

“It’s a challenge to consider the university’s focus on business opposed to education.”

Donna Elmore-Cole

In other words, the main goal of the NASA mentor-protègè program is for mentors to assist universities with learning how to conduct business with the federal government. This includes skills ranging from writing proposals to even partnering with the university to pursue contracts together.

Throughout this partnership, both sides have to work through challenges. According to Brettel, most institutions of higher learning often misinterpret the benefits of the mentor-protege agreement by treating it as a grant instead of a contractual agreement. On the other hand, Elmore-Cole says “It’s a challenge to consider the university’s focus on business opposed to education.”

“Without having the Chancellor's buy-in and understanding, it's a struggle.”

Stephen Brettel

Brettel has two tips for universities who wish to work with prime contractors:

  1. Hire someone who knows how to work with contractors and the government
  2. Find sponsorship at the top of the university from the President or Chancellor

Along with this advice, Brettel stresses the importance of universities meeting their deadlines in order to maintain a successful partnership with contractors.

Dr. Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, and Stephen Brettel, program director of PAE Applied Technology, LLC, sign a historic NASA mentor-protégé agreement. Image Credit: NASA


Elmore Cole offers these tips to HBCUs seeking partnerships:

  1. Preparation - Focus, Know Customer, Do Homework, Solutions
  2. People – People Do Business With People
  3. Patience – Long Term Relations
  4. Persistence – But Don’t Be A Pest
  5. Performance – Exceed Customer Expectations

PVAMU’s involvement in the NASA mentor-protègè program has generated significant interest from other agencies for potential partnerships in the future. Elmore-Cole is hopeful that it is only a matter of time before that interest turns into dollars for PVAMU and contractual opportunities for other HBCUs.

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