Quite an array of leaders gathered yesterday to share their experience with the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization's Small Business Summit.
As Administrator Karen Mills of the Small Business Administration pointed out, this is the "first-ever summit of its kind and will now become the best practice for others to model."
At one point, the microphone was being passed between Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET, Jerri Devard, former Senior VP of Marketing at Verizon, Ronald Blaylock, founder and managing partner of GenNx360 Capital Partners, Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, and John Rogers, chair of Ariel Investments.
Each panelist offered useful tips for audience members seeking to crack two tough problems for small and disadvantaged businesses: access to government contracting opportunities, and access to capital.
Jerri Devard offered one of the smartest pieces of advice I've ever heard. "Instead of talking about what you need," she said, "Do your homework and talk about what you provide that others need. Make yourself valuable."
This was echoed throughout the session. Ron Blaylock said it in a slightly different way: "The product will always lead. There is no substitute for being outstanding."
But Blaylock also indicated that business owners must "be prepared for a long, tough ride." Recounting how he had difficulty getting bankrolled, he talked about his three keys: perseverance, boldness, and communication. "I pressed on, and I tried to differentiate myself."
One aspect of this perseverance is the networking Blaylock emphasized. "You have to connect, connect, connect."
Sheila Johnson took up the mantle of boldness. Citing her recent startup of a hotel-management company, she observes: "Even in this economy, where the hotel trade is down nearly a million jobs over the last two years, I found hoteling opportunties. You have to take risks, but only when you see a set of strong fundamentals."
Yesterday, I told Cynthia Gordy of Essence Magazine and The Huffington Post that the fact that so many of these disadvantaged businesses have gone to their members of Congress and said, "We don't have access," is something I think Congress will consider. Well, in the meantime, this summit is one of the ways DOT can fill a critical gap in the government contracting process by helping those who have been kept on the fringe get into the action.
As Rev. Jesse L. Jackson--one of our welcoming panelists--said in his remarks:
"The first stage in the struggle for equality was ending slavery. Stage two was ending Jim Crow segregation. Stage three was gaining the right to vote. And stage four, where we are now, is gaining access to capital."
Our other impressive welcoming panelists--Karen Mills, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous--all emphasized the drought in capital for DBEs and other small businesses.
"It's not just networking," said Jealous, "We need more funds to local banks because that's where these DBEs are known; that's where they've networked, but that's not where the capital is right now. We need to fix that."
Now, our Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization knows that access to capital and contracting opportunities are significant obstacles for DBEs. And that's why we're hosting a matchmaking session for DBEs as part of the summit's second day. This session provides attendees a chance to practice what they learned yesterday.
I hope that today's session proves as successful as the one I saw yesterday. These small businesses are not only the backbones of their communities; they are also the agile engines we need to get this economy moving.
They are the problem solvers.