Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) made a promise Tuesday to small, women and minority-owned businesses: the state’s got your back.
The governor gave a keynote speech at Bowie State University during a Black business expo hosted by the Maryland Minority Business Counts initiative, which consists of business, community and civic leaders who advocate for diverse small companies to receive state contracts.
The state has historically struggled to reach a goal of signing 29% of state contracts with “minority business enterprises,” defined generally as businesses that have majority owners that are women, disabled people or who are Black, Latino, Asian or Native American. Currently, minority business contracts remain below 15%.
“Every year for the last 10 years, we’ve broken that promise and there have been no consequences,” Moore said to the more than 100 people in attendance. “It’s like telling my kids their bedtime is at 8:30 [and] at 11 o’clock they’re still up. We need to start making real targets, real targets.”
To ensure business owners make better connections with state agencies, Moore announced he will appoint a minority business enterprise ombudsman in the next several months. A main responsibility, he said, “will be to advocate for our small and minority businesses as they navigate through the procurement process giving you all the white glove experience that so many other businesses have had.”
The governor expounded upon the ombudsman position in a brief interview after his speech.
“We need to have somebody who is actually going to help the MBE community being able to hit those goals and to be able to have a true participatory relationship,” he said. “It’s the first time in the history of the state that we’re going to do it. We think that’s going to be a core component to helping us to achieve and exceed our goals.”
Several business leaders praised Moore for signing an executive order, in his first 100 days, to assist and strengthen the relationship between the MBE community and state government.
Adrian Harpool, principal and chief strategist of his own marketing firm in Baltimore, said hosting the expo at Maryland’s oldest historically Black university enhances the governor’s message.
“We wanted to make sure that this was done in a place that was appropriate and consistent with the governor’s ethos,” said Harpool, whose company is one of several with the minority business initiative.
Treasurer Dereck E. Davis (D) has said he will increase scrutiny of state agencies that don’t meet MBE goals and other regulations.
He offered advice to business leaders Tuesday, but also said his and other agencies must be held accountable.
“You have to do your part. Make sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, but when you’ve done your part, we now have to do our part,” he said. “That’s my commitment to you. I’m going to talk, raise hell [and] do whatever it takes so that you get that opportunity.”
During an interview, Davis said that one way to increase contract participation with diverse companies is to make sure they understand fully what procurement may entail.
Davis acknowledged some business executives and elected officials don’t know what procurement means, especially when it comes to government agencies working with local businesses.
“A constant, educational procurement [process] for businesses and government officials alike would be helpful,” he said. “Maybe if more people on our end were familiar and comfortable with it, we wouldn’t be so reticent about having to do a new procurement. It would just be second nature.”
After hearing opening remarks from Davis, the governor and others, attendees could stop at various rooms to hear panels discuss topics such as strategies to access capital, decoding agency acronyms and leveraging artificial intelligence to win government contracts.
Attendees also could mingle with agency officials such as Jada Wright, director of the State Highway Administration’s office of procurement and contract management. One piece of advice she gave: “be responsive and be responsible…” and “ask questions and reach out to the procurement officer.”
One thing Wright didn’t mention is a difference between state and federal regulations.
The highway administration also works with the federal government on road projects like interstate highways which involve federal funds.
During a brief interview, Wright said the federal contract process is similar to Maryland’s MBE process, but it’s called a “disadvantaged business enterprise,” or DBE program and some of the processes and requirements are different.
Former Del. Darryl Barnes, a partner at the lobbying firm Evans, Barnes & Associates, lead a panel discussion on building a business support system.
Kimberly Corbin, chief administrative and financial officer with the Greater Washington Urban League, said entrepreneurs should find “a coach, or a therapist, or both. Just get you somebody who’s in your corner…”