The nation's top official in charge of helping minorities with big dreams but often little cash visited BART today to look at the innovative ways the transit agency gives small business owners a leg up in a down economy.
David Hinson is the national director of the U.S. Commerce Department's Minority Business Development Agency (www.MBDA.gov). Hinson runs the only federal agency whose sole focus is to help minority business owners start and grow their business – which is why he met with BART's top officials this morning to learn the creative ways the agency is reaching out to small business owners – including those run by minorities and women – to provide them with an equal chance at competing for millions of dollars worth of BART contracts.
"BART is working to set the standard on how to run non-discrimination outreach programs," Hinson said. "The key to creating jobs is by helping out small business owners because they generate approximately 80% of all new jobs in America – namely because they are more nimble and creative than large corporations. My agency's mission is to look for innovative ways to help minorities realize the American dream. That's why I'm impressed with BART's progress in this important effort and believe BART can serve as an example for the nation."
Hinson Meets a Living Legend
Hinson also had the opportunity to meet a Bay Area Black business woman who is a living legend. Entrepreneur and icon LaVerda Allen, founder of The Allen Group, has built some of the Bay Area's most famous landmarks, including the Moscone Center expansion project, the BART and AirTrain station at San Francisco International Airport and the Yerba Buena expansion project. Today, Allen talked about the discrimination she faced 50 years ago in the construction world where there were few Blacks and even fewer Black women.
"l jumped through horrendous hoops just to get a few thousand dollars worth of subcontracting work while the big boys easily won multi-million dollar prime contracts with minimal effort," Allen said. "Over the years, I built my business and my reputation by hiring the best people and showing the world that not only was my team more efficient than the big boys, we were more effective as well."
One of Allen's first jobs with BART was working as a subcontractor in charge of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program as well as community relations for the BART to San Francisco International Airport Extension. "It was a political mine field," she said. "We carefully navigated through issues ranging from neighbors who didn't want their homes taken away by eminent domain to calming the media firestorm after a endangered snake was found dead in a nearby marsh forcing BART to halt construction for 18 days."
Allen said these tests proved her company was a formidable force. "Our hard work paid off. Little by little we began earning the coveted prime contracting jobs. Today, we now manage the community relations outreach for all of BART's capital projects, including the $1.2 billion Earthquake Safety Program and the $890 million Warms Springs Extension."
BART's Innovative Ways to Reach Out to Small Businesses
This morning, Hinson learned about BART's innovative techniques to spur the Bay Area job market by helping small businesses compete for the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts the agency offers. BART's efforts include:
BART sponsors networking sessions and undertakes "matchmaking" efforts to identify subcontracting opportunities and help small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses, better market themselves.
- Removing Bonding Hurdles
Bonding requirements can be expensive and difficult to obtain for small businesses including minority- and women-owned businesses. So on larger contracts like the BART Earthquake Safety Program, Warm Springs and East Contra Costa BART (eBART) extensions, BART eased tiered bonding requirements (bond amounts tiered according to the dollar amount of the contract) for subcontracted work up to a ceiling of $500,000 – the "sweet spot" for small, minority and women-owned subcontractors.
- A Business Advisory Committee
BART's Business Advisory Committee includes representatives from local businesses and community organizations like chambers of commerce. The Committee looks at contracting and business practices and advises on ways to improve and promote opportunities for small businesses including minority and women-owned businesses.
- Technical Support Services
On larger contracting opportunities such as the Earthquake Safety Program, BART also provides technical support services to small businesses, including minority and women-owned businesses, to help them navigate the complexities of the public works procurement process.
"No matter your race or your gender, everybody has a right to have a job, which is why BART takes the issue of nondiscrimination very seriously," BART Board President James Fang said. "In Fiscal Year 2010 more than $19 million in BART subcontracting were awarded to women and minority-owned business enterprises. While we're doing better than many of our peers, we're still not doing enough. The nation relies on small businesses to create 80% of the nation's jobs. That's why it's critical for us to keep reinventing ourselves to create opportunities for those women and minorities who own small businesses so they and their employees have an equal shot at the American dream."
As part of that effort, the BART Board created the Business Advisory Committee, which Board Member Carole Ward Allen chairs. "Oakland has an unemployment rate of over 17% - one of the highest in the state," Ward Allen said. "BART is based in Oakland. The minorities and women who own small Oakland businesses faithfully fund our system with their tax dollars and fare dollars. We owe it to them to cut through the red tape and create a level playing field for them to compete for BART's contracts."
As for LaVerda Allen, BART's actions are a significant step in the right direction – steps she wishes were in place when she started 50 years ago. "All small businesses owners want is to be given a chance," Allen said. "Nobody's looking for a hand-out, just a hand-up. I'm proud that BART is one of the few agencies doing just that."
View photos from Hinson's visit to BART: