ASHEVILLE N.C.— Namurah Blakely co-owns Quality Janitorial Group in Asheville with her husband, Jonathan. Established in 1989, the business contracts with nearly 50 area companies and employs about 80 people. Blakely doubts she would be in such a successful position without the aid of the Minority Business Program, which helped her win her first county contract. “When I first started, I knew very little about business,” she says. “I didn’t know how to prepare a bid; I didn’t know how to fill out any of the paperwork.”
Blakely remembers sitting down with a representative from the program on the day the contract was due. “They walked me through it step by step — how to fill out all the paperwork, how to help me come up with an amount to bid — and I actually received that contract, and that’s definitely what propelled our company,” she says.
When the Blakelys started their company, the Minority Business Program was a joint initiative run by the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. The county and the city split the program in fall 2005 and now operate separate programs; however, they are both still dedicated to the purpose of helping historically underutilized businesses compete in the local marketplace.
Leveling the playing field
The Asheville Minority Business Program works to ensure that businesses owned by minorities and women have the information necessary to be competitive for city contracts. Brenda Mills, Asheville’s neighborhood and community engagement manager, says it’s important to keep in mind that minority business outreach is not simple. “We keep working at ways to assist businesses in how to engage with us, submit bids and work toward being successful,” she says.
In order to encourage participation by minority-owned businesses, the program participates in a number of forms of engagement, such as educational sessions for business owners to help them understand the process behind submitting bids for contracts. The program also regularly advertises available contracting opportunities via social media and its website.
Jane Mathews, principal at Mathews Architecture in Asheville, has about 30 years of experience in her field. Architecture firms typically go through a state-mandated, qualifications-based selection process when undergoing consideration for public projects. The process is often different from how many other businesses compete for contracts, which tends to be based on the lowest qualified bid price.
But that doesn’t mean the city’s program hasn’t been helpful for Mathews. “In the early years, I was learning the ropes; now I could probably teach it, but I think it has been helpful just to sort of have … a mentoring by some of the city staff in terms of where to go, how to do other things, how to get in touch with other organizations that might need your services,” she says.
In addition to providing services of its own, the Asheville Minority Business Program has also partnered with local agencies to help educate local business owners. The program has worked in tandem with Mountain BizWorks to conduct educational sessions about access to capital and public contracting. The program also collaborated with Self-Help Credit Union during Minority Enterprise Development Week and participated in initiatives with the A-B Tech Small Business Center. The city also hosts an annual Reverse Vendor Fair, which offers vendors an opportunity to meet with representatives from city departments and learn about conducting business with the city.
Buncombe County’s Minority Business Plan fulfills a similar role for businesses competing for county contracts. The plan has several guidelines in place to encourage participation from minority-owned businesses, including finding ways to advertise upcoming bid opportunities and participating in educational opportunities in the community as they become available. The plan, which is required by the state, also lays out a process by which builders that contract with state and local agencies should conduct minority outreach.
Running the numbers
In fiscal year 2015 (the last year for which data is available), Asheville awarded nearly $65.8 million in contracts to businesses for city projects, according to an annual report released by the city’s Minority Business Program. About 2.67 percent of that went to businesses owned by minorities and women. According to the U.S. Census Bureau website, out of a total 12,785 firms in Asheville in 2012, 4,955 were owned by women and 1,247 were owned by minorities.
Between 1999 and 2015, the percentage of total contract money awarded to businesses owned by minorities and women peaked at 6.56 percent in 2002. Since 2007, the percentage of city contract money awarded to minorities and women has been at or below 5 percent. Between 2011 and 2015, the city has consistently awarded contracts to a few dozen women and minority contractors — 41 in 2011, 38 in 2012, 42 in 2013, 34 in 2014 and 36 in 2015.
To get a clearer picture of the types of barriers minority- and women-owned businesses face when bidding for contracts, the city recently contracted BBC Research & Consulting to conduct a disparity study. In March, City Council approved the Denver-based company’s bid of $319,948 to undertake the project. In essence, the study will evaluate whether there is a discrepancy between the percentage of contract money awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses and the percentage of contract money they should be awarded based on their availability. The study will focus on money spent over a set time frame, in this case on contracts Asheville awarded between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2017.
Sameer Bawa, a managing director at BBC Research & Consulting who directs the company’s diversity research and disparity studies, says the Asheville study will also provide qualitative information about the business community in the city. “What are some of the experiences, the specific anecdotes and insights that minority- and women-owned business, small businesses, large businesses have about working in the local marketplace?” he says.
Mills says the city hopes to gain two important outcomes from the independent study: “One, an update on percentage goals for minorities and women for outreach; two, race-conscious and race-neutral measures to assist in our efforts with best practices in how to engage minority, women and other vendors,” she says.
Data collection for the study started in June and will last through March. A final report will be delivered in May and will be made public. The study will update data gathered during another disparity study that a consultant for the city submitted in October 1993, which evaluated city contracting data from 1985 through 1992. The first disparity study helped the city develop goals for how it awarded contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses, and the new study will help the city reassess the goals it set in 1993. For example, Mills says, Asheville now has a larger Hispanic population participating in local business, and that should be factored in.
Going for the goal
In fiscal year 2015, the city of Asheville awarded contracts totaling $1.4 million to women-owned businesses; $298,893 to businesses owned by Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans; and $5,397 to businesses owned by African-Americans.
Dee Williams, who at press time was a candidate for City Council (the primary for that contest was held Oct. 10), owns Dee Williams and Co. Inc., which has operated as a construction firm for many years and now specializes in providing technical assistance to small businesses. Williams, an African-American businesswoman, believes that $5,397 is noteworthy — for the wrong reason. “I think it’s emblematic of the issues and problems that are there,” she says.
Williams believes the city could do more to proportionally award contract money to women- and minority-owned businesses, particularly when it comes to providing business owners with technical information about the process. “First of all, a lot of people don’t understand that a business has to be certified with the state of North Carolina or certified somewhere for the city to claim it as a woman-owned business or what we call a minority-owned business,” she says. “They just can’t take the word of somebody. That’s the only way they can document it.”
Williams’ company helps other minority- and women-owned businesses receive certification, which she says typically requires businesses to submit a mountain of financial information. “That paperwork can be a monster,” she says.
Williams says outside firms have been more helpful in offering technical assistance than city programs, although even on that front, she believes more progress can be made. “Some of these things are better contracted out to folks that have a track record,” she says. “I think that what [the city] could do is put a lot of their weight behind some of the efforts that are going on in the community.”
Bawa says that no matter the outcome of the ongoing disparity study, the city will gain information that will help tailor its programming to better engage minority- and women-owned businesses and small businesses.
“I think the result that the city should be looking for is to have accurate information about the women- and minority-owned businesses that could be participating in their contracting and then using that information then to refine measures that they could use to effectively encourage their participation in the future,” he says.