Negotiating solutions to improve economic participation
By Tomi Johnson (email@example.com)
Digital images by Daniel G. Johnson ©2004 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.
February 24, 2004, Atlanta, GA…Why should corporate America and state governments trade with minority business owners when these same businesses won’t even support each other? It’s a fact that less than 2% of Georgia’s state contracts have been awarded to minority firms every year since 1991, but in rural Georgia, why would blacks buy gas at a white-owned filling station when the black-owned one across the street sells petroleum for the same price?
Perhaps it will take years for sociologists to explain this predicament, but one knows racism and low self-esteem among African Americans exist. Now the question is, “What are we going to do about it?” To diversify economic empowerment within a capitalist society that constantly checks profits and the bottom line, one must want to do the right thing; but more important is understanding the statistics surrounding how money is spent in the United States.
“My father and mother, who were entrepreneurs during the 1950’s and 1960’s along with their circle of business friends, taught me that if you offer a good service, anyone will buy from you, regardless of whether you’re black or white. Today, however, it’s harder to manage a successful business because of competition, racism, and lack of support in the community.”
Tomi Morris Johnson
Members of minority groups are consumers. They are also providers of goods and services. In order for the United States to live up to its creed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, citizens must be given an equal chance to compete for business, i.e. financial gain. That is the philosophy behind the mission of many corporate and governmental contracting programs, but they are not working as prescribed, partly due to continuing discrimination, greed, lack of knowledge and blind vision.
“If there was a nation called Africanamerica, the gross national product or money earned would be about $600 billion a year,” said investment banker Lonnie Saboor at an economic seminar in downtown Atlanta in 2003. “That is more money than comes into countries like Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Spain combined. There are over 2 million African Americans with college educations. So, money doesn’t seem to be the problem. Education and knowledge is not a problem. The problem seems to me that we are not really doing things collectively,” Saboor stated.
And a lot of us are still doing the same old thing – networking or partying. A recent event titled “Salute to Minority Business Owners - Nomination Process” was sponsored by the Atlanta Tribune in conjunction with Home Depot at its corporate headquarters where approximately 250 people mingled.
Monét Cooper, The Atlanta Tribune Magazine: Our publication, which targets African American entrepreneurs and professionals, teamed up with Home Depot to…do something more formal this year. This is the first of three receptions when MBEs and diversity officers will have the opportunity to nominate themselves or other business to be in the magazine.
Mark Liu, Coca Cola Enterprises, Inc., Procurement Analyst - Supplier Diversity: We go to these types of networking events a lot to meet with new buyers and company owners and to develop a business relationship from there. It is important to make a good exposure to the major companies and increase their capacity, which many minority companies don’t have yet. There are many small companies that are doing jobs for us right now, and we’re working with second tier suppliers in subcontracting capacities, so doing business with us can go both ways.
“It’s important to try to find other people that you can work with in order to build your business…if you meet the needs that a company requires, I believe that you can get business.”
Elgintine Dudley, Director of Marketing and PR, Eagle Environmental Group: When you go to networking events, you meet people, and when you meet people, you build friendships. People do business with people they know and like. This is the beginning of a long, lasting relationship that helps expand your business. After this, maybe the day after tomorrow, I will follow up with the business card and call people to see how we can work together.
Alan Zeppenfeld, VP, GlobalTech Portfolio Services: We’re here to network and make contacts. We provide financing programs for manufacturers, distributors and financial institutions. We’re a small business with 22 people and are minority/female owned. I’ve seen a lot of activity in the governmental area. In the corporate sector, it will take meetings like this and various organizations to make sure that people get to meet people and find out who has the resources to meet their needs.
Kimberly Knight, Georgia Governor’s Small Business Center: We work in the office that helps to facilitate relationships between small and minority firms in the state of Georgia. What we’ve done over the past three years is to work more closely with the agencies and tried to encourage them to look at different ways they can implement small minority businesses into their contracting opportunities. We’ve hosted state agency meet-n-greets, various trade shows like the “Moving your business forward” conference… and of course there is the Governor’s Mentor/Protégé Program where we bring in small businesses for an 18 month period which opens them up … and makes them more visible candidates for possible state opportunities. It’s all about commitment on the part of the agencies – it comes from the top down, and Gov. Perdue is committed to fairly and equitably disbursing opportunities. We’re all working together. Everybody is struggling; the state is struggling, and we all feel each other’s pain. So, we’re all trying to figure out what the solutions are. It’s not easy; but we’re committed to doing the right thing, and that’s a beginning.
Charles “Chuck” Barlow, Regional Services Manager, En Pointe Technologies:
After a study was done in 1991 that found that less than 2% of state contracts were awarded to minority firms, then Gov. Zell Miller issued an Executive Order encouraging and directing all of his department heads to do more business with minorities. One important thing is getting the word out to let people know there are opportunities available. Another thing is making that Executive Order become law. Georgia does not have a minority set-aside program, so it is very difficult unless the governor pushes it. It actually won’t happen; it still has to be pushed and managed so those department heads will start doing it. We also have to bring together the minority business owners and equip them so they can deliver the quality services after they get contracts. For this, we’ve developed the quality institute to assist with infrastructure, quality training, and customer service. Oftentimes, we get the one time business and then cycle out.
The major challenge that everybody is faced with now, whether you’re a corporation or individual, is that the whole world has changed. We’re in a world economy where we are competing with people for the business that’s there. We’re outsourcing jobs. Now the justification is that they say the only way to be competitive is to get somebody to do it for less. Who’s going to buy the products? If we don’t have jobs for our own people inside the country…I think that’s a major concern for everybody. From a quality perspective in terms of assessing companies and organizations, that’s a house of cards; you can see it start to crumble. The reality is, you can have the best executive at the top, but if you don’t have quality employees, eventually you’re going to fall. It’s not something that can be legislated by a government.
The other problem is that you don’t have the loyalty of employees. In order to be real competitive, you must have people who do their jobs at their very best, and allow them to make decisions. Let them know what the expectations are and reward the whole team, not individuals. People will do what you reward them to do. I don’t see companies automatically increasing wages because of competition because for every person who is employed, there are five people looking for a job. I think today, you’re going to have to work more than one job.
Interview with Bill Cannon, V, Owner, WS Cannon Company
WingcomLtd: Are networking events like this one beneficial for minorities to acquire business contracts?
Cannon: Being a marketing consultant, the success of networking events depends on how well people market. A lot of times I hear people say, “It was just another party,” but not everyone realizes the advantages of having access to a large amount of people. You can’t be shy and non-aggressive about meeting people you don’t know and asking certain questions. Networking works for me.
As far as the low amount of state contracts awarded to minority firms, you have to remember that the state is a political entity, so everything that moves there is based on politics. Each minority has a different agenda, and there are some things that they have in common. There are some areas they need to work on together, and some they need to work on individually. Each has to work on getting the body politic to move in their direction.
There was a study conducted in 1991 dealing with minority participation that compelled then Gov. Zell Miller to write the Executive Order that directed all state agencies to make an immediate and concerted effort to increase the participation of minorities in the procurement process. That was two administrations ago. What it did do was require the agencies to keep track of minority participation which it had not done before, so at least you had the evidence that it (minority contracting) was not happening.
WingcomLtd: Marketing moves business right now, so if you don’t have a good marketing strategy or mindset, you will not be competitive.
Cannon: That’s in any market. Marketing is a science of affecting the desired result, no matter whether you’re selling Coca Cola or home supplies for Home Depot, or trying to get votes for a candidate for presidential office, or contributions for Morris Brown College, or trying to get people to join your church. One of the things that I love about it is that it’s universal.
WingcomLtd: Some major corporations don’t want to deal with small businesses that are not established, so it’s sort of hard for minority businesses to become successful unless they can partner with a major firm. Do you think that’s true?
Cannon: No, I don’t think that is true. I think the larger problem is that most companies don’t know how to market themselves, how to package themselves; how to market and whom to market to. There are a lot of companies in the zone that need to update websites. We were guilty of the same thing. One of the things that we emphasize is having our clients be very mindful of where technology is taking people with marketing and e-commerce. That is critical and is not something that is going away, just like hip-hop, computers, and cell phones. When they do go away, they will be replaced by something even more technologically advanced.
We realize that the world is adapting media andmanufacturing. Computers in restaurants are replacing cash registers. At every juncture of our lives now, we are finding that technology…20 years ago we said you must have a brochure or business card in order to have affective marketing. Today, you must have an email address and a website in order to let folks know what you do…and the ability to do business electronically. The world is moving…your message has to be concise, professional, and specify your capability with references. That’s how you get contracts.
“It’s important that you understand how business is done today. You must sell yourself the way the buyer wants to purchase their goods and services. You must understand how the game is played.”
WingcomLtd: What advice can you give to youth on how they will be able to succeed in this competitive environment in the 21st century?
Cannon: As a parent, to be very honest, today’s parents do a poor job parenting. Their parenting skills are woefully short. Too many parents of this generation are operating like today’s developing entrepreneurs; they do it the way they want to do it instead of the way experience dictates using better techniques. A lot of it requires spending a great deal of time. You must develop standards from birth. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to slack from time to time like we all do; but the most important thing is that they develop a sense of worth and a sense of aspiration; that there is something that they want, that there is something that makes them happy, that there is something that they’re willing to go after.
I used to say to my son that he has two jobs, and I said this from the time he was in 1st grade: his morning job was school and he had to do well in school and behave himself. That was his job from the neck up. He also had to develop himself from the neck down, and that was physical. He had to be physically fit. He needed to be fit from the head to the toe. I also told him that as long as he had the education to be capable in a career, that’s fine, but get the education that will allow you to be successful at whatever you want is important. Helping our young people to identify something that they want, willing to work for and sacrifice for…that they’ll feel good about getting up in the morning…just because they will get money…the money will not last in terms of happiness. They must be able to pursue their own dreams and goals. It must be something that makes you feel good about yourself and you see where you are providing a service. That makes you feel good.
WingcomLtd: And on the other end, you have to be realistic. You’ve got to eat.
Cannon: You can generate income from almost doing anything… as long as you don’t get fixed on luxury but are fixed on being able to sustain yourself. If you’re able to do that, you’re way ahead of most people. There are a lot of us that are having trouble paying rent today, or mortgage notes, or are at risk of having our lights turned out. Whatever you want to do, make a commitment and be honest with yourself.
WingcomLtd: You sound pretty optimistic on both fronts, on black business entrepreneurship and on the black youth of today.
Cannon: Yes, from being as close as I am to my son and being close to his friends…and the undergraduate members of my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi…I like to see what our young people are doing. An important issue is not winning the game, but finding out what game is in play and understanding the rules of the game.
I would like to mention two quick things concerning state contracts. Yes, the percentage is very dismal, 2 % or less. We are on our third governor, and things have not gotten better. Our black media has done a very poor job of letting the rest of us know those numbers. We’ve had about eight to ten years of numbers that have identified campus by campus, agency by agency, the levels of minority participation which frequently totaled zero. Our black media has done a very poor job of letting the rest of us know those numbers.
WingcomLtd: I think you do what you want to do, though…
Cannon: That’s exactly correct. It’s just like being on the highway…if you know there are no police out there, the chance that you’re going to speed is pretty high. So if nobody is watching and monitoring minority participation, then the people in those departments are not going to pay any attention to doing it at all, Executive Order or not. They are just going to do what they’ve always been doing.
WingcomLtd: That brings me back to my question, “We know all these problems exist, what are we going to do about it?”
Cannon: Well, a lot of us don’t know the statistics, and a lot of us don’t know what to do about it. Why aren’t there more advocates for black business? Why don’t black business organizations have a lobbying team working in the General Assembly every year?
The Georgia Procurement Registry website identifies procurement opportunities that are $10,000+ regardless of the agency, campus, or institution. That website is http://www.procurement.state.ga.us/procurement_index.jsp. *
*Note: The opportunities are very limited on this contracting website.
The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.
©2004 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.