By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Maryland officials have worked for years with minority and women business owners in small groups, instructing them about raising capital, offering technical training on government contracting and notifying them about bidding opportunities.
The strategy has been working, state officials said. But they realized recently that if they wanted to capture a larger audience, they would have to change their tactics.
"We were doing so many seminars, we decided: Why not package it into one large workshop and take it around the state?" said Luwanda Jenkins, special secretary of minority affairs in the governor's Office of Minority Affairs.
That was the beginning of MBE University, an initiative of the Minority Business Enterprise Program, which was recently launched in Prince George's County with more than 300 minority and women business owners in attendance.
"Our first and foremost goal is to meet as many companies [as possible] so they have the resources the state has available," Jenkins said. "This is about taking the government directly to the businesses."
MBE University, which includes the state's departments of Business and Economic Development and General Services and the governor's Grants Office and Office of Minority Affairs, is expected to be held quarterly across the state next year.
During a nearly day-long conference last week, participants learned about upcoming bid opportunities, access to capital (including opportunities created by the federal stimulus package), laws pertaining to the state's Minority Business Enterprise Program and federal contracting. Pepco and Verizon, which helped sponsor the conference, also hosted workshops on how to do business with their companies.
Clay Anderson, a Pepco spokesman, said the discussion during the workshops with Pepco centered around accessing capital from public and private entities.
"We were there to educate folks," Anderson said. "Many of them had questions about getting their businesses off the ground or expanding their businesses."
Maryland officials said the "university" will not only provide support to the minority- and women-owned businesses, but will also highlight the state's Minority Business Enterprise Program and opportunities in state contracting. It will also offer assistance to companies trying to work in the private sector.
"Maryland is home to a rich and diverse community of 250,000 minority and women-owned enterprises that employ hundreds of thousands of Marylanders and serve as the economic engine that will drive Maryland's recovery," Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said in a statement. "MBE University will provide access to information, jobs and job creation opportunities, and vital resources that will allow them to remain competitive and prosperous, especially during these tough economic times."
Maryland is one of at least 27 states that have a state-level Minority Business Enterprise development program involving certification for participation in state government procurement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The state has set a 25 percent Minority Business Enterprise participation goal, one of the highest in the country. In fiscal 2009, state agencies achieved 22 percent participation and $1.6 billion in awards to participating firms.
"We've had a lot of progress over the last few years," Jenkins said. "We've had some agencies go from single digits to double digits" in their reporting. The state collects data on the program on a monthly basis, making the state more accountable, she said.