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Partnerships driving diversity both ways in Maryland

Larger companies find benefits from helping smaller, minority-owned firms grow



Maryland companies have discovered that strategic partnerships between larger organizations and small, minority-owned businesses can yield benefits for both.

Last year, Open Works Baltimore, a nonprofit maker space for creative and small manufacturers, in partnership with PNC began talking with Ron Williams, who at the time was interim dean of the Coppin State University College of Business.

Will Holman, executive director of Open Works Baltimore, said Williams’ research about how informal businesses (many of which are not captured or reflected in official statistics) operate would be a natural fit for the nonprofit. Some of Williams’ research has involved walking communities with his students to understand better how businesses operate, Holman said.

Among Open Works’ missions is to help rebuild Baltimore’s manufacturing economy by providing low-cost access to tools, space, and professional advice. Holman said the hope was that Williams and his students could help Open Works staff understand and characterize the business activity going on at Open Works as it grew.

“From a broader perspective in Baltimore City, being a majority African-American city, it’s critical that we work intentionally to help African-American-owned businesses grow and thrive because they’re disproportionately underrepresented still in our business community,” Holman said. “And to help Baltimore thrive and grow, we’ve got to build wealth for all people, and it can’t be concentrated in the hands of a privileged few.”

Coppin State occupied several office spaces and sent four interns to Open Works in spring 2017. The interns took free safety classes and met at Open Works once a week to learn about the organization and to shadow staff members. In spring 2018, Open Works plans to host another set of interns from Coppin State.

“It’s been great. I think at all levels of our organization – our board, our staff, our teachers, our programming – we’re trying deeply and authentically trying to engage all types of folks to come in here and leverage this space to grow educationally, economically, culturally,” Holman said. “And so part of that is really intentionally reaching our hand out and inviting in and partnering with (historically black colleges and universities) HBCUs and community organizations and small nonprofits, and … Baltimore is very fortunate to have two of the country’s biggest and oldest HBCUs here. (The partnership) seemed like a natural way to reach new audiences and invite those folks into our space.”

PNC is underwriting Williams’ research project, a portion of which helps pay for the studio space at Open Works, and the bank has supported Open Works in other ways, Holman said. Last year, PNC supported Open Works’ business competition.

The EnterpRISE Venture Competition emphasized diversity and finding people who would not normally compete in such a competition. No business plan or prototype was necessary. Williams was one of the judges, who selected 20 pitches from those submitted. Each of those 20 gave the judges a three-minute pitch.

Ten of those contestants were selected to receive six weeks of free mentoring at Open Works. Topics included how to write a business plan and how to access credit, among others. The top two winners received a $10,000 and $5,000 investment, respectively. They also received six months of membership and studio space at Open Works. The three runners-up received $1,000 and six months of membership at Open Works.

Of those five winners, three were minority-owned businesses, and three were women-owned businesses.

PNC also provided technical assistance for the business competition. Bankers there volunteered to teach a workshop on how apply for capital loans. Holman said PNC, as a bank, provides loans to small businesses and, in the long run, small business formation and success is critical to PNC’s business.

PNC is one of many larger organizations who support women- and minority-owned business development. “Kaiser Permanente works to contribute to the economic health of our communities and reflect the diversity of the communities we serve,” said Scott Lusk, communications representative for Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States. “We work with many diverse suppliers and in 2016 Kaiser Permanente was named one of America’s Top Corporations for Women Business Enterprises by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. This recognition highlights our commitment to women-owned businesses, who are a key component of our supplier diversity program.”

The organization also values economic security because concerns about employment and finances can have health consequences. Last year, Kaiser Permanente, with CommonHealth ACTION, launched the Institute for Equitable Leadership, which was designed to connect businesses and nonprofits “to improve the health of Baltimore residents and encourage local leaders to develop leadership skills that are grounded in equity, diversity and inclusion,” according to a statement about the launch.

Members of the inaugural class included Baltimore Legal Action Team, which provides legal support to Baltimore communities protesting against racism and inequality; Chase Brexton Health Care, which provides health care and honors diversity; Dovecote Café, which connects community, food justice, and wellness; Intersection of Change, which provides programs to enrich the economic, social and spiritual lives of those dealing with poverty-related issues in and around Sandtown-Winchester; and New Lens, a youth-driven social justice organization.