The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce has gone on record in support of efforts to expand opportunities for minority- and woman-owned businesses in New Hanover County.
Last week, the chamber’s board of directors unanimously passed a resolution in support of New Hanover County’s Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) Program, which aims to increase the community’s economic diversity. The resolution was presented to the board by members of the chamber’s African American Business Council.
According to the resolution, 2012 Census data indicated there were 2,022 minority-owned and 4,721 women-owned businesses in Wilmington, out of a total of 14,935.
The MWBE Program sets new targets for county spending with minority- and woman-owned businesses. As New Hanover’s new fiscal year begins Wednesday, the increased percentage of its procurement budget spent with those businesses takes effect.
For the 2020-21 year, the county aims to spend at least 10% of its purchasing dollars with MWBEs, according to a statement earlier this year from Tufanna Bradley, New Hanover’s assistant county manager.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year – the most recent year for which figures are available – New Hanover County spent roughly $79,250,000 for goods and services. Of that, about $6,430,000 – roughly 8% – went to MWBEs, County Manager Chris Coudriet said in January.
Bradley noted at the time that most of those vendors were women, and of those, most were white. To expand the county’s pool of minority-owned businesses, New Hanover officials also launched an effort to make business owners aware of the MWBE initiative and get them to register with the county.
Since January, New Hanover County has pursued its announced MWBE efforts, according to chief communications officer Jessica Loeper.
Those efforts “will also be enhanced even further with the creation of the county’s new Diversity and Equity Office,” Loeper said in an email Tuesday. “Once the Chief Diversity and Equity Officer is hired, it will be a priority to enhance the county’s partnership with the Chamber and African American Business Council, to recruit more minority and women-owned businesses to register as a vendor with the county, and to help make our community more inclusive and more welcoming to diverse workers and businesses.”
Loeper noted Wednesday that, of the 130 grants the county recently made to help small businesses weather the economic impact of COVID 19-related restrictions, 63% of these grants went to enterprises owned by women or minorities.
Wilmington Chamber President & CEO Natalie English said the organization has been very intentional in its outreach to Black-owned businesses.
“Two-and-a-half years ago we started the African American Business Council,” she said Tuesday, adding that she met in the fall of 2017 with Black business leaders, including business consultant Tracey Newkirk, who now co-chairs the AABC.
Helping launch the new council reflected the chamber’s commitment to do something in our community that would grow Black businesses, English said.
The chamber’s objective was to increase the number of African American business members, so those businesses would benefit from the chamber’s advocacy efforts and gain better access to major decision-makers.
Since the advent of AABC, between 35 and 45 minority-owned businesses have become chamber members, English said, noting that those businesses have now enhanced their opportunities for networking and building relationships with the rest of the business community.
“Usually, it’s not intentional [for business owners] to do business only with people who look like them, but when you only know people who look like you, that’s the result,” she said. “More diverse chamber membership gives members greater exposure. And having [African Americans] in the membership means they get to help drive the agenda.”
The Wilmington Chamber is forming
a Latin American Business Council, according to English.
Setting a goal of spending 10% of its budget for goods and services with MWBEs is a step in the right direction for New Hanover County, but it’s a small step, said Velva Jenkins, CEO of the YWCA Lower Cape Fear.
She said she hopes the county will continue to increase its targets, since MWBEs make up about 45% of total area businesses but are the source of less than 10% of county purchases.
Meanwhile, the YWCA is focused on preparing more women and minorities for entrepreneurship, Jenkins said Wednesday. She added that data show MWBEs, given adequate support and access to capital, are more successful than the average small business. But those two resources may be difficult to come by.
“The largest obstacle for a minority- or woman-owned business is access to capital,” Jenkins continued. “It’s just so difficult for them.”
The YWCA can’t provide financing to aspiring business owners, but it can prepare them in other ways. With a three-year, $40,000-per-year grant from the city of Wilmington, the organization operates a women’s entrepreneurship program to educate enrollees on a broad range of business topics.
A further grant from McDonald’s national Women’s Empowerment 360o program will provide business education basics to those aspiring entrepreneurs. The program, designed to help women of color overcome barriers to starting, growing and sustaining businesses, provides them with educational tools to increase their knowledge and confidence.
Jenkins said the program is being reconfigured to take place online and will start soon.
In October, the YWCA will launch a Google grant-funded program to help minority men and women interested in starting technology ventures.
This version of the story corrects the first name of New Hanover County's chief communications officer, and adds a statement from her about county grant support for woman- and minority-owned businesses.