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VOL. 132 | NO. 161 | Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charting a Course

Women-owned businesses chart progress of diversity contracting efforts

K. DENISE JENNINGS, Special to The Memphis News

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Daphne Large, founder, CEO and president of Data Facts Inc., didn’t have her company certified as a woman-owned business for 25 years. “I don’t want to be chosen because I’m a woman, but because I’m the best,” Large said, voicing a sentiment that many women business owners agree with.

“But the fact is that women have to work harder, they have to come to the table overprepared. You have to get your foot in the door first and then prove your pace.”

In the past two years, the city of Memphis and Shelby County have stepped up efforts to lessen the disparity in the number of government contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned business, but the needle may not be moving fast enough for some, and private business to business contracts are lagging behind even further.

In April 2016, Shelby County officials released a disparity study conducted by California-based Mason Tillman Associates Ltd. that showed white men were awarded 88.3 percent of Shelby County’s procurement budget between 2012 and 2014. Black-owned businesses were awarded 5.8 percent, while white women were awarded 5.1 percent.

Nisha Powers, president of Powers Hill Design LLC, at the General DeWitt Spain Airport in Memphis. The firm recently was selected to provide civil engineering design services for the airport’s runway pavement rehabilitation. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The city of Memphis released a similar report by Atlanta-based Griffin & Strong PC a few months later that showed that between July 2009 and June 2014, 12 percent of its contracts were awarded to minority- and women-owned business enterprises, also known as MWBEs.

But even before the city’s report was released, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was taking steps to improve the amount of city business going to MWBEs. He combined the Office of Contract Compliance and the Memphis Office of Resources and Enterprise – the two city agencies overseeing minority business efforts – and hired Joann Massey to lead the resulting entity, the Office of Business Diversity & Compliance.

“There are a lot of people working on this initiative and a lot of conversations going on,” said Carolyn Hardy, president and CEO of Chism Hardy Investments and chairman of the board of the Greater Memphis Chamber. “What I’m hearing is that in general it’s slow progress.”

Hardy feels like Strickland and city officials are committed to the initiative to involve more women and minorities in government contracts, but says to exact any real change, the private sector is going to have to buy in as well.

“The quasi-government agencies are all reporting (women and minority contracts), but the big bucks lie with private companies,” Hardy said. “The chamber is having those conversations to get the business community engaged.”

Hardy thinks Memphis needs to not just do a better job of including women and minority businesses, but that the city needs to have a grass roots initiative to “in-source” jobs from within Memphis instead of outsourcing business to out-of-town companies.

“Memphis has to decide … do we want to be 2 percent better or do we want to be a city of choice,” Hardy said, referring to what she perceives as slow progress that is keeping Memphis from competing better with its peer cities on job creation and population growth. “If we don’t get the needle to move faster, we will lose our young people with good educations.”

Large, who serves as chairwoman of the New Memphis Institute board of trustees, agrees with Hardy’s sentiments, saying she’s been impressed with the efforts and resources Strickland has put toward increasing MWBE participation in government contracts but that “the bigger problem in Memphis is that Memphis businesses do not support Memphis businesses.”

She adds that Memphis companies outsource too much business instead of looking internally.

“We spend a lot of time trying to be an entrepreneurial city and attract new business, but to have the biggest impact the fastest, we need to in-source Memphis intentionally,” she said. “We need to say, unless a Memphis business cannot meet your needs, then, and only then, do you outsource. If we did that, we could bootstrap Memphis immediately.”

The city and county studies only measure disparities in government contracts – not the private sector – and they look at disparities categorized in specific ways rather than at improving minority contracts as a general goal.

Nisha Powers, president of Powers Hill Design LLC, spoke against such categorization before the Shelby County Commission this year.

“I’m going to have a disadvantage as a woman and as a minority, and the goal of the program is to level the playing field for the access to compete,” she told The Memphis News in a recent interview.

Powers Hill Design recently was selected by Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority to provide design services for runway pavement rehabilitation at General DeWitt Spain Airport as well as the terminal modernization at Memphis International Airport. The company also is a subconsultant on the modernization project, providing civil engineering services.

“Once you get your foot in the door, you have to compete on your own merits. I didn’t win this bid because I’m a woman; I won because I’m great at my job.”

As an Indian woman in an engineering field, Powers has found that sometimes she falls through the cracks as not disadvantaged enough to qualify for special certifications, which she finds frustrating, but she believes that the intent of city and county leaders and their willingness to listen and adapt to the business community’s concerns is good.

“The city has come a long way in making sure the implementation is more aggressive,” Powers said.

Kim Heathcott, CEO of Clarion Security LLC, agrees, saying, “I feel that the system is working well.”

Healthcott, a board member and former president of the Memphis chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, does see the private sector lagging behind in efforts to give minority- and women-owned businesses more of a shot at contracts.

“I’m mostly seeing opportunities in businesses with PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) or specific diversity plans,” she said. “ServiceMaster in particular has blown past all of their incentives. … It’s a big success story.

“In general, I think until there is some transparency and some guidelines and accountability in private commercial enterprise … I don’t think the needle is moving as much as it should.”

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