India native starts architectural practice from spare bedroom in 1991, grows to become leader in healthcare facility design services.
By age 6, Rita Kalwani already had developed a love for math and art. After her dad suggested she would make a great architect someday, Kalwani embraced the idea and took that on as her quest in life. Ten years later, even before studying architecture in her native India, she set another goal – to create her own architectural practice. She achieved both objectives after immigrating to the United States and working for other firms. Kalwani, who wanted to provide personalized architectural services and build a business from the ground up, founded KAL Architects in 1991. Today, KAL Architects is a full-service architectural, engineering, interior design, planning and construction management firm based in Irvine, California with 20 employees. This year Kalwani will receive the California 8(a) Graduate of the Year Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Kalwani was nominated for the award by Vivian Shimoyama, Regional Executive Director at Long Beach Community College & Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Initiative. Kalwani competed against other nominees to secure the local 8(a) graduate award before moving on to eclipse winners from five SBA district offices in California, ultimately garnering her the statewide award and making her eligible to compete in the National Small Business Week Awards program.
KAL Architects, Inc. (KAL)’s list of clients include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, all branches of the Department of Defense, the U.S. General Services Administration; multiple Southern California cities including Irvine, Los Angeles, Costa Mesa, and San Clemente; and utility companies, such as Southern California Edison. KAL’s initial major client was Nestle Corporation, hiring the company to provide consultation for their corporate architectural design tasks. During this time, the company became certified as a ‘small disadvantaged business’ under the Small Business Administration 8(a) Business Development Program, which led to the company securing federal contracts. After graduating from the program in 2004, KAL mentored an 8(a) program participant and formed a joint venture. The 8(a) joint venture entity received two contracts, one from Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest, and another from the US Department of Air Force, Edwards Air Force Base.
Kalwani cites the events of 9/11 coinciding with KAL’s graduation from the 8(a) program for bringing about brought about monumental challenges. Major reductions in DoD funding and base closures greatly diminished design opportunities in those areas for which KAL had gained experience during their time in the program. The company evaluated its preparedness and capabilities in assisting Department of Defense branches in both Iraq and Afghanistan and even participated in an overseas exploratory visit to the “Green Zone” in Baghdad). Principal Kalwani concluded that other areas for the firm’s design talents would be a better and more manageable option to pursue.
When a new Architect-Engineer procurement process was implemented in 2004, Kalwani aggressively prepared the firm for entry into the federal government’s healthcare facility design arena. As a result, the firm quickly established itself as a nationwide provider of healthcare facility design services by gaining multiple regionally and nationally competitive small business A/E contracts including an initial 5-year AE services contract for the six major VA facilities in Southern CA; a nationwide A/E services contract with VA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.; master planning contracts for VA facilities in Northern CA, ; regional A-E design services for VA facilities in Texas and Arkansas; and three separate nationwide A/E services contracts with the Army Corps of Engineers for Army and Air Force healthcare facilities nationwide.
KAL’s path to success did not happen overnight. As Kalwani did not have extensive savings before starting the firm, she first operated from a spare room at home. Three years later, she moved the firm to an executive suite. Two years later, she moved the firm again, this time to a leased office shared with 2 other firms. It was not until the company had been in operation 7 years that she secured a separate lease for the company.
KAL is actively engaged in the economic development of disadvantaged populations and is committed to hiring the disadvantaged. Of the company’s 20 employees, KAL’s staff is 65% minority; 40% female; and 15% military veteran. The company has a long-standing relationship with a service disabled veteran owned small business (SDVOSB) based in Florida for design-build federal contracts in the southeastern United States, and additionally a relationship with an SDVOSB and a Long Beach-based 8(a) program graduate for whom KAL has provided design services in both California and Oregon. Kalwani has received SBA financial assistance in the form of a physical disaster loan in 1994 and again in 2003 for an SBA backed 504 loan from CDC Small Business Finance and first trust deed lender Wells Fargo to purchase the company’s building.
Kalwani is actively involved in the advocacy of woman/minority/veteran-owned small business and is an active member of the Minority Business Enterprise Input Committee (MBEIC) for the Southern California Minority Supplier Diversity Council (SCMSDC) and is a member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) Certification Committee. Professionally, Kalwani is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME). Key professional staff at KAL include multiple women, minority individuals, and service-disabled veterans.
Other community involvement includes being a Team Mom for her children’s sports teams and serving as a Cub Scout leader. Kalwani is actively looking for a group where she can provide design services for Emergency Departments and Urgent Care Centers in underprivileged areas of the world.
Every year since 1963, the President has issued a proclamation calling for the celebration of National Small Business Week. Small business owners, entrepreneurs, and community leaders are recognized by SBA district offices at events across the nation during this week. SBA’s Santa Ana District Office, which is responsible for the delivery of SBA programs in the Southern California counties of Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino,