In Memorial: Deborah Sawyer
Environmental Design International inc. (EDI) Founder and CEO Deborah M. Sawyer leaves legacy of lasting community impact
Deborah M. Sawyer, 60, the late founder and CEO of Environmental Design International inc. (EDI) made significant contributions to her profession and to hundreds of aspiring women and minority business owners, who benefitted from her mentoring and counsel. Her determination helped to build a nationally recognized engineering firm that recently, in February 2016, celebrated 25 years of outstanding client service.
Deborah began her career as an environmental scientist for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Later, she entered the private sector where she worked her way to senior vice president for a large national engineering consulting firm, finding success by creating its profitable Solid, Toxic, and Hazardous Waste (STHW) Management Division.
In spite of economic and other business uncertainties, Deborah followed her dream and built EDI, receiving many honors along her illustrious path to success. She was featured on The Today Show on NBC and in publications such as the Chicago Tribune and Business Week. In 2012, she was one of five entrepreneurs who received the Green Award from Chicago magazine, after demonstrating that good business sense and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. She was central in securing EDI's role as Engineer of Record for Exelon City Solar, the largest urban solar power plant in the U.S., and received the highest engineering award. The success of that high-profile project lead to Deborah speaking on brownfields and renewable energy at Chicago Ideas Week in 2012.
"Starting EDI was something I never anticipated," Deborah told Today's Chicago Woman in 2007, the same year Crain's called her one of 25 Women to Watch. "It wasn't such a huge leap for me to own my own business after creating a successful STHW division for another engineering firm."
In 2013 she received the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce's Outstanding Business of the Year, adding to past honors such as the Small Business Association (SBA) Minority Small Business of the Year, State Farm Phenomenal Woman Award, the Chicago Women of Achievement, the ACEC-IIlinois Engineers Community Service Award, and the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) Woman-Owned Business Star, among many, many others since starting EDI in 1991.
She systematically grew the now-70-employee firm by delivering innovative environmental and civil engineering solutions for Fortune 500 companies, as well as governmental agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. The company is a certified Minority and Woman-Owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE), and holds a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) certification, which is a U.S. Department of Transportation designation for minority and/or woman-owned companies working on federally funded projects.
A selfless civic leader and volunteer, Deborah continually reached out to help other women business owners. She also fostered the interests of young women in science and engineering, and taught 7th grade students at the Young Women's Leadership Charter School in Chicago, where she served as a former president of the school's board of directors. She contributed extensive personal time and resources to serve on professional, entrepreneurial and charitable boards and organizations, including the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and the Innovations Conference on Asphalt and Transportation (ICAT). She also was on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Supplier Diversity Task Force. Her example of community service and industry involvement set the tone for EDI's corporate culture which led to the firm receiving the 2016 Community Partnership Award from ComEd at their inaugural Supplier Diversity Awards Event.
Deborah earned a Master of Science in Petroleum Microbiology from Eastern New Mexico University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Emory University. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, she lived in Chicago more than 25 years. A voracious reader, Deborah also cherished her time with gourmet cooking, gardening, and most of all, her beloved pets. She is survived by her mother, Mrs. Betty P. Sawyer, sister, Ms. Leslie J. Sawyer (Mr. Rick Redmon) who live in Columbus, OH, and brother, Dr. Wm. Gregory Sawyer (Dr. Rita Gloria Sawyer), who reside in Simi Valley, CA, and a host of extended family and close friends.