Ask almost any Black or Hispanic NYC business owner certified as a minority- and women-owned business (M/WBE) whether being certified has been useful in matching them with new business contracts, and they’ll likely respond with an emphatic “No.”
And it’s not just hyperbolic conjecture. According to NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 2016 Report, Making the Grade, M/WBEs comprise just over half of all firms in New York City, yet these businesses continue to receive an unacceptably small share of New York City’s procurement dollars. In Fiscal Year 2016, the City procured $15.3 billion worth of goods and services, but only 4.8 percent went to M/WBEs. In total, only 994 certified M/WBEs received payments from the City during the entire fiscal year, and the lionshare of those contracts went to white women.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“One of the biggest issues facing M/WBEs is an inability to find contracts that match their capabilities.”[/perfectpullquote]
Well, this may soon change: Tunisha W. Walker, senior vice president and head of the MWBE Consulting Group at Capalino+Company— a Manhattan-based government relations and strategic consulting firm– along with Associate Vice President Safeena Mecklai most recently launched a digital tool they believe is the first big step in addressing the problem. It is a mobile app called MWBE Connect NY.
“One of the biggest issues facing M/WBEs is an inability to find contracts that match their capabilities,” Walker said.
“When I started the M/WBE consulting group for the firm, it was based on the fact that we had clients who were looking for M/WBEs to work on contracts. A lot of them were saying they tried looking through the Small Business Services (SBS) directory and other directories, and either the telephone number was not correct or contact information had not been updated, or that there wasn’t enough information on the small business for them to be able to connect.
“Additionally, M/WBEs we had as clients were saying to us, ‘We can’t find contracts. We’re looking on the systems, but there’s so many different login portals. It’s taking up so much of our time that we’re missing out on opportunities, and we don’t have the staff capacity to spend the day looking.’”
That’s not to mention the labor-intensive process required to apply even before a contract is signed: “I have personally sat down with the M/WBEs and reviewed the 130-page documents and looked at the requirements to answer an RFP, and it’s absolutely ridiculous. It is too long. And so are the documents on the side of the contractor. It’s a book.”
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”The biggest issue is that M/WBE’s are seeing contracts, but they don’t really know if the contracts are for them.”[/perfectpullquote]
So Walker opened the M/WBE division of the firm in effort to physically connect the two parties, one with the other. But it wasn’t until Mecklai attended an RFP informational meeting, on behalf of one of their M/WBE clients, a digital marketing business, that the Mecklai and Walker understood just how fractured the process was. Mecklai drove an hour from Manhattan to Long Island City for the meeting, only to sit in on the meeting for five minutes before discovering it was totally the wrong fit.
What was listed in the RFP online didn’t explain well enough what it was about, and so she realized immediately she had made a wasted trip. “It was an opportunity for us to experience through the eyes of an M/WBE what they go through and the frustration when the lines of communication between the two groups aren’t really syncing,” said Walker.
Mecklai, who has a background in digital technology, was sitting next to a web developer at the meeting who discovered the very same thing: he also misunderstood the needs of the RFP. So the two started talking and eventually began exploring the possibilities of expanding the MWBE contractual process into the digital world. “We realized, we could really help MWBEs if we developed an app,” said Walker.
The app, MWBE Connect NY, essentially is a tool that provides M/WBE companies with real-time contract opportunities, by expertly matching the assets and skills of its users with the direct needs of contractors. It sends up-to-the minute alerts on emerging RFPs, updates on requirements, as well as information on upcoming workshops, events and legislative announcements.
There’s also something else quite special about the app that’s missing from the government database system– and, in fact, most of today’s digital catalogues– and that is the human touch: Walker and Mecklai actually comb the government databases and hand-pick each opportunity.
“Safeena and I spend every morning going into the open data source that our algorithm has created for us, looking at all the different RFPs that are out there from both the City and State,” said Walker. “We review them and retag them so that they’re easier for M/WBE’s to find contracts to match their capabilities. Because that’s the biggest issue is that M/WBE’s are seeing contracts, but they don’t really know if the contracts are for them.”
“We didn’t create the app to say to the City or State, ‘Oh, this is what you should be doing.’ That wasn’t our intention. It is meant to be a business tool that benefits both the MWBEs and the City,” said Walker. “This app is a way to increase the potential if they decide to take the [matching process] to the next step.”
But make no mistake: The app is trademarked.
“I’d love for the City and State to be able to make a similar app. We do have licensing agreements, so we’d be more than happy to have the conversation.
“Really in a nutshell, all we wanted to do was help the M/WBE’s find these contracts and not give up,” said Walker. “We wanted to makes sure that, as an M/WBE, you get your fair share, and we wanted to be able to put that in the palm of your hands.
“There is a voice out there that’s representing you, and we’re tagging every single day.”
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