City of Cincinnati's minority inclusion efforts gain traction in the new year

There’s been a lot of talk in Cincinnati in recent months about getting more minority-owned and women-owned businesses to bid on and win city contracts. One of the biggest catalysts for this discussion was the release of a city-commissioned study on race and gender disparity in city contracts; the results, released in late September, were pretty grim.
Huge discrepancies were found between the portion of city contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses and the number of local minority- and women-owned businesses in operation. The differences were particularly stark in the construction industry — the study found that only 2 percent of those contracts were awarded to women-owned businesses and less than 1 percent went to African-American-owned businesses, while 13 percent of construction companies in Cincinnati are women-owned and 21 percent are owned by African Americans.
Although the numbers are bleak, Thomas B. Corey, director of the city’s Department of Economic Inclusion, sees the study as a positive tool.
“This will get more local folks into our procurement process,” Corey says. “This disparity study gives the city the right to enact a race- and gender-based program.”
The findings of the study provide the evidential basis for Cincinnati to legally enact a program that takes race and gender into account in the procurement process in order to correct the disparities. The Mayor and City Council, who commissioned the study for exactly this purpose, have already taken steps to act on the results.
The week the disparity study was unveiled, City Council passed three pieces of legislation amending the Cincinnati Municipal Code to enact race- and gender-conscious goals in city subcontracts. This Minority and Women Business Enterprise Program institutes subcontracting goals on primary contracts of $50,000 or more according to the study recommendations, including:
• 17 percent of construction subcontracts to African-American-owned businesses,
• 10 percent of construction subcontracts to white-women-owned businesses,
• 14 percent of professional services subcontracts to African-American-owned businesses and
• 16 percent of professional services subcontracts to white-women-owned businesses.
Making it happen
By the time these measures took effect on Jan. 1, 2016, the Department of Economic Inclusion had already been hard to make sure the city could meet the new goals. The department’s biggest effort has been to get Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs) and Women Business Enterprises (WBEs) certified for city contracts.
Thomas B. Corey 
“We’re working on getting as many folks certified as we can,” Corey says.
Once a business is certified, it’s able to compete for contracts and subcontracts; that competition is restricted only to certified companies.
The race- and gender-specific subcontract goals only apply when the city’s database of certified businesses determines that there are enough WBEs and MBEs available to fulfill that specific contract. Being certified and listed in the database helps these enterprises individually to get contracts, but also the more MBEs and WBEs are certified and “available” to take on contracts the more the city will be able to institute percentage goals on new contracts.
In addition to MBE and WBE certifications, two other categories of certification were created for small and very small or emerging businesses.
All of these efforts work together with the goal of increasing inclusion and widening the group of businesses and business owners benefitting from the city’s procurement process.
“It provides an opportunity for local companies to compete for contracts without having to compete with other bigger companies,” Corey says, citing those contracts as opportunities for growth for small companies. “This will hopefully spur the local economy. The study also found that about 96 people got 70 percent of the dollars awarded in city contracts.”
To give more people a chance to compete, Corey and his team have been working hard to educate businesses and the public about the certification process and then make that process as transparent and easy as possible.
The department held a Fast Track Minority Business Showcase in November to give WBEs and MBEs the opportunity to exhibit their abilities in front of city department staff. It also opened a Business Training Center to host classes to equip MBEs and WBEs to compete for city contracts.
In December, the DEI took a big step toward making the MBE and WBE certification process easier by signing a reciprocal agreement with the state of Ohio.
“One of the big issues (with the MBE/WBE certification) is that you have to produce documents over and over again, which makes the certification process cumbersome for businesses,” Corey says. “With the reciprocity agreement, once a business is certified with us, the state can see their documents from our process and vice versa.”
This reciprocity will streamline the process significantly for business seeking certifications with both the city and the state.
Corey says he’s happy with the progress his department has made so far.
“We just started and thus far we have almost 100 companies certified,” he says. “We think that’s pretty significant. We’re coming along, but there’s obviously a lot more to do. If all goes well, by February you’ll start seeing contracts with goals on them.”
To continue the push to get businesses certified, the DEI will hold two more events this month. First, an information day to answer questions about how the program works takes place Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. in the Centennial II building on Central Avenue, across from  City Hall. The event will explain the Minority and Women Business Enterprise Program as well as address any misconceptions floating around.
The information session will be followed up by a “certification blitz” to make the process much easier and faster for businesses that attend. In only an hour, a business can complete its MBE certification process with the exception of a site visit. Those sessions, called the Race for MBEs, will take place 9 a.m.-3 p.m Jan. 26; businesses that wish to attend should call 513-352-3144 to reserve a time.
Corey also cites one of the city’s newer technology upgrades as a benefit to MBEs and WBEs looking to bid for city contracts and subcontracts.
The city’s new web portal for bids and contracts, part of the Open Data Cincinnati project, will allow businesses to remotely view contracts up for bidding at any time, up to six months in advance. MBEs and WBEs thus will be able to plan ahead of time for applying to bid for contracts, an especially useful feature for small businesses. They’ll also be able to see copies of prior successful contracts to use as models when crafting their own bids.
Ripple effects
The city of Cincinnati isn’t the only entity working to improve opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber recently hired high-profile diversity leader Darrin Redus as the new vice president for its Minority Business Accelerator, while the Cincinnati Minority Business Collaborative provides mentorship and training to speed the growth, development and success of regional minority firms.
Corey says the DEI is working with many of the community action agencies, chambers of commerce and other groups around Cincinnati involved in increasing inclusion.
“Everybody is excited by the fact that the city now has this race- and gender-based program,” he says.
Corey is excited, too, and not just for the individual MBEs and WBEs who will benefit from the program. Giving small businesses a chance, he says, can be a potential catalyst for the entire Greater Cincinnati region.
“We feel that the more opportunities a company has to compete for contracts, the more they will be able to grow capacity,” Corey says, adding that many of these new and small businesses are just waiting for one good opportunity to provide the capital they need to expand and land future contracts.
Corey knows the Minority and Women Business Enterprise Program will require a culture shift both in city government and in the community at large, and he acknowledges that some will oppose the effort as well.
“We’re willing to work with them to let them know that this is a good thing for everybody, not just minorities,” he says. “We need more people to participate in the economy in order to make it grow.”
When it comes to those efforts, Corey is grateful for the support and commitment he has seen from the mayor, city council and city manager. He’s also looking forward to specific wins for everyone involved.
“I’d like to see more MBE and WBEs up and running, doing business with both the private sector and the public sector, because it takes both,” he says. “I want to see some growth, and I want to see a significant drop in unemployment.”