Looking back: The Path of Deborah M. Sawyer and EDI

On August 7, 2016, Deborah M. Sawyer, Founder and CEO of EDI lost her hard-fought battle with ovarian cancer. We’re looking back at the path she and EDI took together for 25 years.

Even as a young girl, Deborah M. Sawyer liked to challenge stereotypes. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1950s and 1960s, she played football with the boys in her neighborhood. A “science and math chick,” as she would later call herself, Deborah loved science and math and said she was always the one with the kool-aid stand.

Deborah was very young when her father died, but she picked up some of his leadership skills and took to heart his urging that his daughters Leslie and Deborah be independent women. Their mother Betty was also a strong, independent woman and role model for their daughters.

In the summer of 1968, Deborah was to start sixth grade at the private and prestigious Columbus School for Girls (CSG). Deborah and Leslie were some of the school’s first black students to attend and graduate from CSG. She immediately impressed her teachers, by becoming involved with tutoring disadvantaged kids, community service, and establishing a charity walk to raise money for scholarships.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Deborah headed West where she earned a master’s degree in Petroleum Microbiology from Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales.

Deborah took a job as an environmental scientist with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. There she authored the state’s hazardous waste laws.

She left the Ohio EPA to join a large national engineering consulting firm where she worked her way up to senior vice president. After busting through that glass ceiling and making significant revenue contributions to the firm, she realized there was no more moving up–only out.

Armed with her academic training and professional experience, Deborah began to build her own company; and in 1991 Environmental Design International inc. was established. 

“Starting EDI was something I never anticipated,” Deborah went on to tell 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 hazardous waste division for another engineering firm.”

Initially, EDI was located in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. With a staff of six employees, EDI began performing Phase I Environmental Site Assessments for financial institutions and industrial clients. EDI quickly added asbestos services and began working on Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) projects. Sales that first year were $500,000.

In addition to the CHA and CPS, EDI acquired other City of Chicago clients and moved downtown to a location on Michigan Avenue. There, EDI grew to become a one-stop engineering firm averaging 65 employees offering five core services: Civil Engineering, Construction Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Industrial Hygiene, and Land Surveying. EDI continues to serve that same diverse client base ranging from Fortune 500 Companies to governmental agencies at the local, county, state, and federal levels.

People took notice of Deborah’s leadership and the outstanding work of EDI from the start. Just three years after starting EDI, Deborah was in Washington D.C. with President Bill Clinton to receive the Small Business Administration Minority Small Business of the Year award.

EDI’s reach went beyond Chicago, with the firm opening and maintaining other Illinois offices in Lemont and downstate Collinsville. EDI also had offices in Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio, as client and business development needs required.

In 2002, EDI was named Engineer of Record for the old Cook County Hospital Demolition and Environmental Abatement, a $20 million project. EDI, as Engineer of Record, provided all Engineering and Architectural services associated with the demolition of the pavilions of the Old Cook County Hospital, the Children’s Hospital, the old existing Power Plant, and the Electrical Buildings.

In 2006, Deborah developed a unique teaming approach with an all African-American joint venture to successfully land the Phase III Engineering of a $71 million stretch of the IDOT Dan Ryan Reconstruction. It was the largest job in IDOT history ever awarded to a minority and woman-owned firm. The impact of that success is still felt more than a decade later, with EDI winning two IDOT construction inspection contracts as a joint venture partner with another African-American woman-owned engineering firm in 2013 and 2014.

In 2008, EDI moved to its current, and larger office space at 33 W. Monroe Street. This move coincided with Deborah’s full court press to expand EDI’s private sector business, especially projects with energy and utility clients such as Exelon, ComEd, Citgo, Ameren, BP, People’s Gas, and We Energies. EDI currently holds blanket service contracts with several major energy and utility providers nationwide.

These efforts lead to EDI winning the highest engineering honor in Illinois–the ACEC Eminent Conceptor–for our role as Engineer of Record for Exelon City Solar. Exelon Corporation contracted SunPower Corporation to build a solar power plant on a 41-acre brownfield in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood. EDI played a significant engineering role providing Site/Civil Engineering, Environmental Consulting, Industrial Hygiene, and Survey services for the 10-megawatt solar power plant. EDI also provided crucial environmental expertise that aided in this high-profile project’s success. The plant, which came on line in 2010, produces enough electricity to power an estimated 1,500 homes annually.

With these accomplishments, more awards and media coverage were to follow for Deborah and EDI, including an appearance on NBC’s “The Today Show.” Publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Business Week and the Chicago Sun-Times also covered Deborah and EDI. In 2012, she was one of five entrepreneurs who received Chicago Magazine’s Green Award, after demonstrating that good business sense and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. In 2015, she was honored by Womenetics with a POW! Award which celebrates real life examples of career success for women.

As a friend and mentor, Deborah continually helped other women business owners. And long before it was even called “STEM” education, Deborah encouraged young women to pursue science and engineering careers and urged EDI management and staff to participate in causes that furthered the mission to inspire diverse students to pursue STEM careers. She was a constant role model, and taught 7th grade students at the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, where she was a former president of the school’s Board of Directors, and was honored by them for her service in 2013.

That was the same year Deborah received the devastating diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Despite a long and complicated treatment plan that included surgery and chemotherapy, Deborah continued to be deeply involved with the day-to-day operations of EDI as she battled the aggressive disease. Sadly, her fight wasn’t over and her invisible adversary came back with a vengeance a short three months later after completing that initial treatment regimen.

Deborah always kept that positive can-do spirit throughout her battle. She knew she had families counting on EDI, and she would go into the office regularly with only a few close staff knowing her condition.

In 2016, EDI opened an office in Baltimore, Maryland, and Deborah celebrated the firm’s 25th Anniversary with nearly 300 employees, clients, and firm supporters with a party at Howell’s and Hood in the Tribune Tower. She was also able to celebrate her 60th birthday with friends and family before traveling to California to see her brother Greg and sister-in-law Rita, and travelled back home to Columbus, Ohio to be with her sister Leslie, mother Betty, and brother-in-law Rick. She was in Ohio when she passed away on August 7, 2016 with friends and family by her side.

Always a planner, Deborah provided for a seamless leadership transition for the company she loved. EDI corporate board member and Deborah’s sister, Leslie J. Sawyer, assumed ownership of the company and the role of Chairman and CEO on August 8, 2016. 

Under this new leadership, EDI has continued to be a successful, growing company delivering innovative engineering solutions throughout the Midwest and beyond.