In the pantheon of city services, it’s easy to overlook the Minority Business Program, a one-person operation that’s part of the Office of Economic Development.
Overlooking coordinator Brenda Mills is not an option, however. Full of brio even when sitting down for an interview, Mills seems hell-bent on making sure her office not only helps minority businesses vie for city contracts but also strives to break down the walls that often separate those enterprises from the city’s white business establishment.
“I have a passion to help people understand government better,” she says. “I think people have all the wrong ideas about government: You can empower people to get what they need.”
Speaking about her own work, Mills explains: “I help you to do three things. I identify you to help you certify your business as being legitimately minority-owned. When we say ‘minority,’ we mean ethnic minorities and white females. There are five groups in the United States that are classified as historically underutilized: African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian-American, Native American and white females. At the state and local level, females are [legally considered] a minority; at the federal level they are not. So there’s greater opportunity for females at this level.
“The second thing I do,” she continues, “is the education of the city staff and anyone else in the community that needs to understand the process. And the third thing is my community outreach. I volunteer at Goombay, I’m at the Greek Festival, I’m doing stuff constantly. I’ve been on the YWCA board, the United Way board. These things get you out front and let people know you have a minority business program.”
There are 3,651 registered minority and women-owned businesses in North Carolina, and 205 of them are in Western North Carolina’s 23 counties, says Mills. The online certification process works through the state’s Office for Historically Underutilized Businesses. Asheville’s program helps businesses navigate this process and educates them on doing business with city government, particularly in the areas of construction/repair, professional services and procurement, Mills explains.
“The city of Asheville has access to this database to outreach to minority vendors in all areas of contracting,” Mills says. “We have seen an increase in contracting with minorities and women due to this expanded listing.” These businesses also gain access to state-contract opportunities, she notes.
But her efforts aren’t limited to certified businesses. In her 10 years on the job, Mills says she’s worked with more than 350 new and existing minority-owned firms, providing startup or other assistance as well as helping them position themselves to compete for city contracts.
The city has targets for contracting with minority- and women-owned firms, broken down by both type of service and minority. For construction, they are: African-Americans 3 percent, Hispanic/Asian/Native 1 percent, women 8 percent. For procurement: African-Americans 5 percent, Hispanic/Asian/Native 2 percent, women 18 percent. And for professional services: African-Americans 7 percent, Hispanic/Asian/Native 7 percent, women 37 percent.
But certification alone is no guarantee of work. Although the federal government uses a quota system, Asheville and other local governments do not, instead awarding contracts to the lowest responsible bidder, regardless of ethnicity or gender. “Our job is not to get you a contract—it’s to open up access to a contract,” notes Mills.
And though she focuses on expanding contract opportunities for minorities and women, Mills also likes to consider herself a role model for other minority businesspeople, especially those she feels are stuck in old mindsets. She’s often lauded for how far she’s gotten professionally, but Mills is quick to add that her current job is just another step in her own professional evolution, noting that she’s now working on a master’s degree in public affairs at Western Carolina University. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Mills moved to Asheville in 1992 to work in private business. Her governmental career began somewhat inauspiciously in the mid-90s, when she was a jailer at the Buncombe County Detention Center, she notes. But Mills calls it “one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” noting that it was while she was working there that she was noticed and invited to apply for her current position.
And these days, she’s keen on showing her minority clients how they, too, can evolve and prosper in the new economy and become consummate business professionals.
“Sometimes, as a minority, you have a hard time doing what you need to do,” Mills observes. “You have chips on your shoulder.” And that can keep people from thinking big or doing the sorts of things other professionals do as a matter of course, such as perpetual self-marketing and image-building.
“Anytime you talk to someone, you’re marketing yourself,” she says. “You’ve probably got 60 seconds to … give them some kind of idea of the person you are. And they’ll either call you back or they won’t. Trying to get people to understand that [can be a challenge],” says Mills.
Another hurdle, she notes, is the area’s changing demographics. “We’re losing our local community—the people who were originally born here and lived here. So how do you capture a younger group and get them to get into newer forms of businesses? Like stop being janitorial people or whatever, and start getting into green businesses. That’s still a transitional type of thing we’re trying to do.”
To obtain certification as a minority-owned business for the city, visit the Web site of the N.C. Office for Historically Underutilized Businesses at www.doa.state.nc.us/hub and follow the links to “request HUB designation.”
Searching for minority vendors? You can access a list at www.ips.state.nc.us/ips/vendor/srchven.asp or click on “search for HUB vendors” on the HUB home page above.