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VOL. 133 | NO. 130 | Friday, June 29, 2018

Building Diversity

City leaders make one-on-one pitch to minority businesses

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has been looking for a good deal on cars. “City Hall, as you can imagine, buys a lot of vehicles,” he told a group of 300 gathered Wednesday, June 27, at the city’s third annual symposium promoting a larger share of city contracts for local, minority- and women-owned businesses.

“There is no locally owned MWBE (minority- and women-owned business enterprises) we can buy from,” he told those at the “We Mean Business” event at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

Local entrepreneurs Latisha Smith, left, and Tonya Watson register for the We Mean Business symposium Wednesday, June 27, at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Strickland also said while the city during his tenure has upped the percentage of city contracts with minority businesses from 12 percent to 21 percent in two and a half years he still sees a need “to be clear-eyed about our challenges.”

One of those challenges is the capacity of minority-owned businesses “to take on some of our larger or more specialized contracts,” he said.

That means business sectors like car dealerships, where there are no black-owned businesses.

In the last year, Strickland has attempted to broaden the push in local government contracts to the private sector and the business-to-business contracts that are more substantial in the impact they can have on a minority-owned business.

“We need the private sector to really buy into this too so that we are on the same page,” Strickland said before the luncheon.

The minority business owners and entrepreneurs at the luncheon heard from former Heisman Trophy winner and Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George, who has business ventures that include EDGE – a team of planners, architects and developers. He also owns a wealth-management group and Eddie George’s Grille 27 in Grandview Heights, Ohio.

Lieutenant S.R. Chastain of the Memphis Fire Department speaks with a symposium attendee. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“It’s about calibrating, evaluating and focusing,” George said of the process of building a business. “When you are building a business it is about the process. It’s not necessarily about the so-called failures or the teaching moments. The only way you fail is if you stop. You’ve got to keep going.”

George’s business is similar to those in the city’s recently announced 800 Initiative – a city-led effort to bootstrap the 800 minority-owned businesses in Memphis that have full-time employees – a payroll that has an economic impact on the city that can grow with some development.

While the goal is business-to-business contracts and similar ties, a city government contract can be an important step on the way to that.

After the luncheon, city division directors were available to talk with those attending the free symposium in a process that resembled speed dating – timed one-on-one sessions at different tables.

Latisha Smith, right, speaks to a Memphis Housing Authority representative during the We Mean Business symposium Wednesday at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“The businesses out in Memphis need to know what needs the city has,” Strickland said. “That’s why we made every division director available to talk and tell what projects they have going – what services and goods they need to buy and expose them to as locally owned, minority-owned and women-owned businesses as possible so that the businesses out there know what opportunities exist.”

“If you don’t know the opportunity is there then it doesn’t exist in your mind,” he added.

Joann Massey, director of the city office of business diversity and compliance, said the one-on-one sessions were new this year based on the experience at the first two years of the symposium.

“We had so many questions during the project presentations, we were like ‘You know, they need to be able to ask the divisions directly,’ ” she said. “We’re being transparent. We’re being proactive and intentional about the strategies we use.”

Before the symposium, Strickland said his division directors discussed quicker payment by the city on contracts.

“As a former small-business owner, I know getting paid on time is important,” Strickland said, referring to his law practice before becoming mayor. “We are still working on trying to more quickly pay our bills. … I’ve actually heard from small businesses who say they don’t want to do business with the city because the payment doesn’t come quickly.”

Strickland said the police and parks and neighborhoods divisions have recently improved their accounts payable turnaround to within 30 days.

Also at the Wednesday gathering, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson touted the school system’s pitch to minority businesses Thursday at the Shelby County Board of Education.

Hopson has proposed and the SCS board is to consider percentage goals for minority businesses in specific contract areas based on a 2017 disparity study of the school system’s contract practices.

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