City, chamber leaders work to support diversity in business

Authored By chloe.morrison

Dipped Fresh co-owner Antonia Poland used to wonder how other business owners got in on certain opportunities. 

She would hear about events and wonder how her business could have gotten the chance to cater for it. But as a new business owner, she didn’t really know where to start. 

That was in 2012. Since then, help from city and chamber leaders has helped her business flourish. 

About Dipped Fresh 

Dipped Fresh has an array of sweets, such as chocolate-covered strawberries, as well as a full catering menu. 

They offer delivery services throughout the region to places such as Cleveland and Dalton. 

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce has an African American Business Development Program, which supports small businesses like Dipped Fresh. Mayor Andy Berke’s administration has put a focus on vendor diversity for the city’s purchasing process. 

For Poland and co-owner Cynthia Wood, who haven’t had funds to dedicate to advertising, that sort of help is valuable. 

“I never gave up hope,” Poland said. “Since the chamber has stepped up to help us and the city has backed us, it has doubled our business.” 

Through working with the chamber and the city, Poland and Wood have gotten plugged in to a network of people and organizations that have resources to support small businesses. 

Wood said that being able to work with the city is an endorsement, and that’s something Berke echoed. 

“Doing business with the city can provide a contract, but it also serves as a validator of the business,” Berke said. 

City ramps up business with diverse vendors 
Last week, city leaders released their diverse business enterprise report for the first quarter of the 2015 fiscal year. 

The report shows that 14.35 percent of city purchases went to minority-, women- or veteran-owned businesses. The number represents a 12 percent increase over April 2013, when Berke became mayor. 

By the numbers 

-Since Jan. 1, 2014, the city has spent more than $3 million with minority-, women- or veteran-owned businesses.

-That spending represents 2.24 percent of all the city’s funds spent in that timeframe.

When Berke took office, he tasked the city’s Office of Multicultural Affairs to work with the city’s purchasing department to increase the diversity business enterprise rate. 

The Office of Multicultural Affairs has done outreach and education to help these efforts. 

Berke said that the Office of Multicultural Affairs and purchasing department-in partnership with the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, LAUNCH and the chamber-have helped change how the city operates to ensure more opportunities for small business owners. 

“The easiest thing is to do what you did before,” Berke said. “When I came into office, diverse businesses received about 1 to 2 percent of the city vendor purchasing orders. To change that, we had to put in a conscious effort.”

Multicultural Affairs Director James McKissic said that part of the efforts to support diverse businesses is through an effort called Doing Business with the City, a series of monthly educational workshops geared at small business owners.

And city leaders have ramped up their online and social media presences so that information is more easily accessible, he said. 

McKissic has heard from some people that there can a perception that it’s difficult to get in with the city, so getting information out and providing resources is important, he said.

“A lot of it is outreach and working to help people understand that working with the city is not like a secret society,” he said.

Chamber resources 
The Chattanooga Chamber has a variety of programs and services for area businesses, and the African American Business Development Program is aimed at supporting black entrepreneurs and business owners. 

It also supports women- and veteran-owned businesses, Director Maria Noel said in Trend Magazine.

Noel also said that black people make up more than one-third of Chattanooga’s population but own less than 15 percent of businesses. 

“Among the program’s goals are to promote the development and growth of African-American firms, many of which are first-generation businesses challenged by historic barriers such as accessing capital, building a more inclusive customer base and forging stronger connections to peers in the business community at large,” Noel said. 

Through the program, business owners who are members of the chamber get connected to more than 2,200 other companies and have access to more than 200 networking events every year.

Chamber leaders help business owners with bid solicitations, and they provide diverse companies connections with contractors, suppliers and other partners-from government leaders to purchasing officials, Noel said. 

Poland said support from city and chamber leaders has helped her know that what the business is doing is worthwhile. 

And Wood said that working with both the city and the chamber has helped give her business a chance to get noticed. 

“What they do is afford an opportunity to people who may not have been noticed because they don’t have the advertising dollars or the connections right off the bat,” Wood said. “They are that bridge that allows a foot in the door or a seat at the table. Then, your product can speak for itself.”