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Work in progress: State strives to boost business diversity

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John Harmon, president and CEO, African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
John Harmon, president and CEO, African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. - ()

It can be a daunting challenge: translating population diversity into workplace and entrepreneurial diversity.

Almost a third of New Jersey residents speak a language other than English at home, and nearly a quarter of the population was born outside the U.S., according to recent estimates.

State agencies devoted to diversity include the attorney general’s Diversity Council, which promotes diversity within the department, and the Office of Diversity and Equity Services, charged with ensuring that employees, job applicants and anyone doing business with the New Jersey Department of Health are free from discrimination.

There’s also the Division of Revenue’s online Diversity Registry — a directory of minority- and women-owned and businesses — and the New Jersey Selective Assistance Vendor Information database of minority- and women-owned businesses.

Corrine Statia, owner of Absolute Events by Corrine, is listed with NJSAVI but is a bit unimpressed with the results.

“The only government business I’ve been able to secure was with the local Hudson County Office of Business Opportunity & Community Services, where I recently managed an event that attracted about 175 people,” Statia said. “At the county level, there seems to be more activity.”

Statia said it would help if the state did more to publicize businesses like hers that have met certification requirements.

“Companies like to hire minority and women-owned enterprises, or veteran-led and other companies,” she said. “And it would be great if the state made it easier for them to identify us. But right now it seems that the onus is on us to go and seek out opportunities.

“Many of my engagements are through referrals from customers, suppliers, and vendors,” she added. “We also maintain a website, I use search engine optimization, and we’re on social media. … We’ve done event work for companies like Novartis and Time Warner Cable, and organizations like the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and the New Jersey City University Foundation. In the end, they hire my business because of our qualifications.”

Beverly White is president of the management consulting firm BKW Transformation Group, which is state-certified as minority-owned.

“As a small business, we’ve got limited time to search for government opportunities,” said White, who said she has put in bids but has yet to win any state contracts.

“I’d like to see a single point of contact for all state agencies, and an easy way to identify the purchasing agent for each agency,” she added. “It would also be good if women- and minority-owned companies were able to easily find out more about how they can do business with the state. Supplier diversity is good for everyone.”

Still, White is encouraged by New Jersey’s announced intention to promote more diversity and inclusion within state government, including placing more minorities and women in key positions. She also notes that the state’s small business development centers “can provide a lot of educational services and help many people find out about starting a business. ... It’s not the state’s responsibility to get work for me with major corporations — that’s up to me. But helping to promote our small businesses and providing more access to decision makers would be nice.”

Diversity and inclusion “are not about handouts – they’re about competing,” said John Harmon, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

“We’re looking for a level playing field so small-, minority- and women-owned businesses can compete on the basis of their goods and services,” Harmon said. “Without this kind of inclusion, the state and its residents are not getting the best value.”

Harmon applauds the state’s appointment of a chief diversity officer, along with Murphy’s consideration of a disparity study aimed at recommending effective strategies for diversifying state procurement.

“Before you can solve a problem, you have to be able to quantify it,” Harmon said. “Gov. Murphy has attended events hosted by the African American Chamber of Commerce and other organizations, which is encouraging.”

But Harmon, a longtime banking executive, is also a realist.

“We need to see if and when the state implements and executes its plans to create a stronger, fairer economy,” he said. “Billions of dollars are being spent on port, airport and other projects, and we need to see that women, minority and other small businesses get an equitable share. Diversity and inclusion help creativity, and will help the state itself to be more competitive.”

Toward that end, Murphy appointed Hester Agudosi as the state’s first-ever chief diversity officer in April, effective May 14.

In a statement ahead of taking office, Agudosi said: “In this significant role, I will lead the Governor’s effort to promote a more diverse workforce and increased opportunities for women and minority business participation in public procurement. New Jersey continues to lead the nation, having one of America’s most diverse populations. My office will serve as a public engine that drives economic growth and opportunity for each and every community in our great state.”

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