Gone are the days where an invisible "Blacks Need Not Apply" sign branded the City of Memphis' business sector. Still, what is the difference between stating access and creating access for African-American and women-owned business enterprises, or "MWBEs" as they're called in the marketplace?
That was the dimes-to-dollar question as The New Tri State Defender returned (May 8 in City Hall) to the starting point for this series, the monthly meeting of the Minority Business Development Opportunity Commission (MBDOC).
Established by resolution, MBDOC – a seven-member volunteer group – cannot recommend the hiring or firing of any firm seeking business with the city. Its job is to review how the city's divisions are complying with the stated intent to legally and ethically spur MWBE growth and to, hopefully, recommend solutions to make the process easier.
A report concerning the management of the city's pension fund illustrated a key point. While MWBEs have gained ground in bedrock businesses such as small-scale contracting work and other service related industries, large-dollar opportunities go wanting in many fields. Reports from the city's General Services and Engineering departments shed light.
General Service Deputy Director Antonio Adams Sr. voiced frustration about the difficulty of fulfilling some department needs through the current MWBE available list. General Services' wide-ranging purchases include police cars and 125-horsepower Batwing lawn mowers from its $9.32 million budget. Such buys offer few opportunities for MWBE engagement.
However, the department spends significant per-project amounts on small-construction projects such as $2.75 million for roof repair, security, heating, plumbing and ventilation jobs that go wanting. Adams' frustration was that more MWBEs have not made themselves knowledgeable of his department's budget and the potential work.
"We diligently try to adhere to the (MWBE) goals, but how do I reach out to them?" He stressed that the budget for his department "is available online" and that potential contract seekers can get a copy delivered for a small fee.
Commenting after the General Services report, MBDOC board member Vincent Lee of ServiceMaster said he understood.
"When I want to do business with someone, let's say General Services for example, I study them to try to learn what they want," said Lee. "I go visit them and ask questions. It's up to me to find the opportunity."
MBDOC Chairman Melvin Jones saluted Lee for his savvy and knowledge, and in expanding on Lee's point he gave an explanation of why MBDOC is needed.
"After years of discrimination there is still a myth out there among MWBEs that aren't as savvy as you," said Jones.
"What we are trying to overcome is (that) because of an historical discrimination of not wanting MWBEs the myth is out there with many of them that they need not apply. What we need to do to overcome the myth is to proactively get the word out. It's really no different from what many private sector firms do."
Jack Stevenson from the city's Engineering department followed, reporting that while his department has generally maintained a 16 percent use rate with MWBEs, he would like to see it increase to a standard 20 percent, and more, if possible.
His report backed up the view that in the big-number contracts, sometimes qualified firms just cannot be found.
"Forty-six percent of the work we do cannot be filled by MWBEs," Stevenson said.
Another problem his department faces is that much of the work is grant-based and cannot set specific MWBE goals. Stevenson said he and the department are "diligently" trying to make more opportunities available.
Problem identified, next steps were suggested. It was agreed that the process to spread the word about opportunities must be improved and expanded.
Dr. Judith Black summarized the session.
"What I'm hearing is that there is a need for education. There is a need for training" to upgrade the knowledge base of the MWBE sector to increase bid levels for public and private contracting processes.
MBDOC member Alandas Dobbins has been on both sides of the fence. Now executive director of the city's Office of Resources and Enterprise, Dobbins ran Southern Communications Systems with her father, George Dobbins, growing the business into "the most successful African American owned telecommunications firm in the city."
A past chairwoman of MBDOC and the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Dobbins said her office is now working on the consensus that emerged in the meeting – better communication that will service all ends of the marketplace.
"We're constructing a one-stop website for small businesses, and reaching out to the organizations that work with MWBEs," Dobbins said.
"This whole process has shown that we have to get the word out better."
(Part IV of The New Tri State Defender's exploration of the city's African-American business sector.)