MWBE New And Improved

June 14, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Since its inception in 1992, the city’s Minority and Women Business Enterprise program has focused exclusively on construction projects.

That’s about to change.

A broader reaching MWBE program is in the works and will cover all acquisition categories — construction, goods, professional services and non-professional services.

Under the new program, the city expects to expand outreach to small and disadvantaged businesses, giving WMBEs greater opportunity to share in the $75 million worth of goods and services contracts the city buys annually.

The program won’t be fully operational for a while because there are so many preliminary steps involved, said Ingrid Scott-Weekley, director of the city’s Equal Opportunity Department.

The plan calls for creation of an Opportunity Center within city hall that will house three departments: Equal Opportunity, Purchasing and Economic Development.

The Opportunity Center is in the design phase at this point, so the three departments haven’t as yet co-located. Furthermore, staff still has to be hired to drive the new initiatives.

The purpose of housing those three departments in a single center is simply one of convenience. It will serve as a one-stop-shopping venue for women and minority business owners seeking everything from start-up information to the chance to bid on city contracts.

Though the physical structure is not in place as yet, the physical location isn’t as important as getting the strategic initiatives going, Scott-Weekley said. City staff has already begun informally addressing them.

“Accountability measures have been set in place for top management staff, as reflected on their performance evaluation,” Scott-Weekley said. “So they already know what the expectation is for the fiscal year that they will have to report on what percentage of those dollars they spent and how they were spent in terms of diversity.”

Staff also is in the process of reviewing and revising various policies, like its professional services policy, and are working with other city departments to encourage them to take the initiative and begin moving in the same direction, she said.

As new contracts are being put together and proposals generated, staff will ask companies vying for city business to consider minorities and women as part of any subcontracting they’re trying to secure.

As part of the plan, an Office of Supplier Diversity will be established within and funded by the Equal Opportunity Department.

The Office of Supplier Diversity will simply expand the functions of the current WMBE division to include goods, professional and non-professional services, Scott-Weekley said.

Three new positions have been budgeted to help carry out new initiatives: a minority business advocate, a senior buyer and an MWBE developer. The minority business advocate will head up the Office of Supplier Diversity.

She’s calling it her “dream team” because she hopes to see the best, brightest, most creative, innovative and visionary individuals attracted to those jobs.

Staff will match MWBE firms with both city contract opportunities and majority-owned businesses.

Matchmaking has been done, but very narrowly, within the confines of the city’s construction MWBE program. The new program gives more thrust to encouraging partnerships and joint ventures among minority and non-minority firms.

As Scott-Weekley puts it: “Matchmaking is essential, I think, to any race-neutral initiative because if you don’t have a goal that people know they have to achieve, you have to have some way to facilitate internal and external entities in hooking up.

“We intend to see that it happens much more often.”

She believes the program presents a unique opportunity in that it forces staff to aggressively start doing business in a more creative way when it comes to access and utilization of minority- and women-owned businesses.

Very few departments have traditionally done that, but not through any real fault of their own, she said. It’s just that that’s not the way the city has historically done business.

“Unfortunately, the equal opportunity department has been to the greatest extent, in partnership with purchasing and engineering, the only one to really take on the issue of MWBE participation.”

Other departments had not had that expectation because it had not been articulated as a strategic objective for the entire organization until recently, she said.

That expectation was extended to all departments under the city’s Economic Opportunity Plan.

“The plan says very clearly to all departments that this is something that we are all responsible for and that we will all participate in,” Scott-Weekley said.

“So even though you’re used to picking up the phone and calling widget company ABC because that’s who you’ve done business with for 10 years, that’s not enough. You’re going to have find out who minority widget company ABC is and woman-owned company ABC who can also provide this product and establish a relationship with them, too.”

Furthermore, come performance evaluation time, departments will have to report how much money they spent on widget ABC, who they used, and whether or not they were women and minority businesses.

Departments will be able to work with the new Opportunity Center to make that happen, she said, so in that sense it will become a resource for city departments as well as MWBEs.

The city’s numerical goal under the original, construction-focused MWBE program was that 11 percent of all dollars spent must be spent with minority owned businesses and 1 percent with women owned businesses.

“What consistently happens is that once anybody achieves that 1 percent or 11 percent, once they satisfy that requirement, they stop — even if there’s opportunity to use MWBEs at a far greater rate,” Scott-Weekley noted. “We’re constantly challenging people to exceed that goal because it should be the floor and not the ceiling.”

In conjunction with the new program, a Business Opportunity Council will be established to advise the city on effective measures for involving MWBE firms in Grand Rapids, Scott-Weekley explained.

The voluntary council will be a sounding board for policies, procedures and initiatives going forward, Scott-Weekley said, and council members will reflect a broad and diverse array of individuals.

“We imagine we would be inviting representatives from entities like the chamber, the minority contractors, women contractors, business owners and the like.”   

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