Federal government, academia ramp up efforts to bring diverse suppliers to the table

There was a time when being a small fish in a big pond was a disadvantage for vendors and suppliers dealing with large companies.

As organizations, including state and federal governments, look to improve environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals through diversifying vendor and supplier partners, they are finding ways to bring those smaller businesses to the table.

“There are so many efforts to increase contracting with small disadvantaged businesses. It is a big topic at the federal, local and state level,” said Michael Obi, senior vice president, economic development at the Urban League of Greater Cleveland.

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order setting a goal that increased to 15% from 10% the federal contracting dollars allocated to underserved individuals and communities by 2025.

“There is a lot of energy behind federal economic development funding with the Biden administration,” Obi said. “Now there is an intentional requirement in all of the federal programs that I have not seen before.”

Obi said federal programs now are requiring metrics that outline with specific dollar amounts how grant funds and other tools will aid underserved communities, support disadvantaged businesses and serve individuals.

Ohio has benefited from $6.6 billion in federal funding that already has been invested and announced toward infrastructure projects. And with that funding are initiatives to help businesses from underserved areas.

“Government contracting is a fantastic way for small businesses to generate a revenue stream, with the U.S. government being the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world,” said Geri Aglipay, the Small Business Administration’s regional administrator for the Great Lakes.

The federal government in 2021 paid out nearly $1 billion to Ohio businesses. Under Aglipay, a former small business owner herself, the SBA is making strides to change the way the government partners and supports small businesses looking to become certified vendors.

“We are helping smaller businesses strengthen their back-end financials and accounting to make sure that small businesses get the support they need,” Aglipay said about a number of matchmaking programs the SBA has hosted in 2023.

A program announced in May as a partnership between the SBA and General Services Administration gives small, disadvantaged businesses a special designation, making them preferred vendors for sole source awards and competitive set-aside contracts from the federal government.

The GSA manages the procurement for the federal government. It oversees the government’s nationwide real estate portfolio and is responsible for about $75 billion in annual contracts that, traditionally, have gone to larger businesses.

Aglipay stressed that federal agencies are working to be more direct and flexible when working with small disadvantaged businesses.

“Sometimes we counsel them to start locally and work with local governments and state governments, because they’re easier to navigate than the federal government and it helps them understand larger contracting systems,” Aglipay said.

Putting small suppliers and vendors together with large organizations looking to diversify was the idea behind the Case Western Reserve University office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity’s inaugural Black Business Expo, which takes place Tuesday, June 20, from 12:30 to 6 p.m.

The event, which coincides with the university’s Juneteenth celebration, will bring more than 60 smaller suppliers and vendors together to highlight their businesses and to provide education on the process of submitting bids to larger organizations, including CWRU and other University Circle businesses and institutions.

“With this event, we didn’t just want it to be an expo,” said Heather Burton, associate vice president and senior director for faculty and institutional diversity at CWRU. “We are looking to provide information and awareness for Black business owners. We want to teach them specifically about being a diverse supplier and help them understand the law, how payments work and help them register with our institution to increase the number of Black businesses on campus.”

The expo, which includes smaller food and retail vendors, is a way to let smaller businesses know their services are needed for larger organizations.

“Most of the time, business owners don’t know just how to get in,” Burton said. “What I want see is an increased number of Black businesses at Case, whether that’s catering, fixing lights, cutting grass. I want to see those vendors, their products here.”