On Monday mornings, coffee in hand, the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs team meets for their weekly deep dive – chipping away at the race and gender disparity that exists in state procurement in hopes that someday their office won’t be necessary to help level the playing field.
Together, this seven-person team, led by Special Secretary Jimmy Rhee, discusses how it can best advocate for small, minority and women-owned businesses and how to provide them with the resources they need to compete in the state procurement arena and connect them to greater economic opportunities.
“There needs to be greater participation, easier participation and more transparency in participation,” said Rhee.
The office does this by offering technical training, networking access with state procurement officers and, most importantly, access to their own expertise in the procurement world.
For Lisa Amans, president of BlackSheep Consulting, these resources were invaluable to her in starting up her business this year. Her access to the team humanized a complicated part of government.
“Especially as a small business, doing everything on your own, there are so many restrictions on your time that it becomes more valuable,” Amans said. “It’s rare that you find people like this.”
This office makes Maryland unique, according to Lisa Sanford, Minority Business Enterprise compliance manager. The team works constantly to increase and manage participation goals for small, minority and women-owned businesses in the state contracting arena.
Unlike other similar socioeconomic programs across the nation, the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs is supported by legislation to enforce these goals for inclusion.
On the back end, laws give the office the “teeth” needed to keep a watchful eye on Maryland’s 70 state agencies, ensuring that small businesses are being used and paid on time.
On the front end, the team works on outreach to small businesses to connect them with the tools they need to register for the state procurement programs, build relationships with buyers and compete for contracts.
“Competition is fierce,” said Alison Tavik, communications director. “We want our small business community to have the tools they need to compete with confidence.”
One of their largest hurdles is that many small businesses don’t know that the resources are there.
“Navigating the procurement process takes time and experience,” said Eduardo Hayden, small business outreach manager. “We can help make the learning curve a lot easier.”
When Amans started her business earlier this year, she was challenged with registering herself as a woman-owned business to take advantage of the state’s opportunities.
After finding the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs office online, she started attending their outreach events and talking with some of the team members.
“They gave me the trust and confidence that I could get where I wanted to go,” Amans said.
As the Small Business Reserve Compliance Manager, Lisa Mitchell Sennaar often helps people navigate eMaryland Marketplace, the state’s online procurement system.
“By looking at it as a ‘business intelligence tool,’ I can show people how to research previous contract awards as well as current open solicitations. It’s very powerful information,” Sennaar said.
That level of personal accessibility is the greatest resource the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs provides.
“We try to attend as many events as we can. Some on weekends and some in the evenings,” said Gerald Stinnett, the team’s MBE compliance manager for the state’s video lottery terminals.
“By talking to business owners you get a better idea of what they are going through. It’s rewarding to be able to bridge the connection to resources and relationships and be a part of their growth,” Stinnett said.
Passion drives change
For Rhee, what drives this office is the reason it exists at all – that studies prove disparities exist in Maryland procurement and without their help, these business owners can’t take full advantage of the services their taxes pay for.
He encourages his staff, as well as the secretaries and directors across the state, to think differently and to create a legacy of being fair, equal and just.
“You have to run this office with commitment and passion for this space, otherwise you won’t be effective,” Rhee said.
Especially for multibillion-dollar nascent industries coming to the state – casinos, offshore wind and medical cannabis.
“We recognized a need for diversity early on, said Chantal Kai-Lewis the office’s legal and policy advisor. It feels like we are on the right side of history. We all know this agency will be remembered for that.”
So how can this little team make a big impact among Maryland’s 580,000 small businesses?
“Everyone in this office is professionally and personally impacted by the work we do,” said Tavik. “We want to see small businesses succeed.”
This article is featured in the 2018 edition of The Daily Record’s Expanding Opportunites Resource Guide for Small, Minority and Women Businesses. Expanding Opportunities explores diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation in Maryland’s small business community. Read more from Expanding Opportunities on this website or read the digital edition.