For Dwight McLeod, the decision to become a small business owner wasn’t difficult. A full-time employee at Verizon Wireless, in 1997 he established a side venture, Capstone Strategy Group, a provider of business management and technology consulting services and resource staffing in Mount Vernon.
At the time, McLeod maintained his position at Verizon, a company he’d worked at for 30 years. Then the economy changed, and McLeod’s destiny along with it: he was offered a buyout three years ago. That was the push that he needed to focus on Capstone full time.
“It was tough at first. We had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” McLeod said. He leaned on his wife, Robyn, a partner in the company who also works as a consultant and executive coach.
Capstone faced a problem that’s common for minority and women-owned enterprises (MWBEs): lack of capital. Getting a loan was a long process, McLeod explained. Robyn, who like her husband is African-American, had gone to great lengths to prove her ethnicity because it wasn’t marked on her birth certificate.
MWBEs also face the challenge of becoming certified. Businesses must be certified with Westchester County and New York state in order to have an opportunity to bid on highly sought-after government contracts.
Recently, the county hosted a “Road to Certification” seminar to help jumpstart the process for MWBEs. “This seminar was the second in a series,” said Wiley Harrison, treasurer with The Business Council of Westchester’s board of directors. “At that earlier event we asked ‘How many of you are certified?’ Less than 10 percent raised their hands.” Some didn’t even know what it was, he said.
The county is addressing the “inequity” in business with seminars like this, Harrison said. Erica Kaufman, program manager at Women Presidents’ Educational Organization in New York, added, “I think the main point is to get the word out. (Many women) haven’t heard of certification and the benefits.” She said her organization explains why certification is so valuable. It makes companies eligible to bid and secure contracts worth thousands and sometimes millions of dollars.
McLeod’s company Capstone is certified, and he was just awarded two government contracts, one worth $99,000 with the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, and another valued at $100,000 with the Department of Small Business Services, both based in New York City.
Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration announced “Compete to Win,” an initiative to assist MWBEs in New York City. Also this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a goal of having 20 percent of state contracts go to MWBEs. McLeod said while he’s seen firsthand the benefit of those programs, his company continues to struggle to win contract bids with Westchester County.
The county recognizes the frustration of business owners like McLeod. George Oros, chief of staff to the county executive, said in September a consultant was hired to address why the county is having “a difficult time attracting” MWBEs. “We’ve got to make it work,” Oros said. There’s a lot of qualified minority and women owned businesses out there. We can’t keep going back to the same people.”
The county produces weekly bid lists for area business with 20 to 30 opportunities. In an effort ease some of the frustration, Oros said they are combing over lists of MWBEs that have missing, invalid, and incorrect information, so they can get the lists and be contacted. He added that the seminars are intended to help facilitate a relationship between the county and MWBEs. “We do seminars to provide three things: help minority and women-owned businesses get certified, let them know what opportunities exist for them and walk them through the maze of red tape” that he noted comes with doing business with any government entity.
For McLeod, those efforts will be in vain if the door to bigger opportunities remains hidden to MWBEs like Capstone. Oros said the county encourages young businesses to go after smaller contract bids first worth $20,000 or less, because it’s a shorter process and they can at least get in the door.
But McLeod said Capstone is looking at the opportunities that exist with projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge, a $5 billion venture. He remains hopeful that Cuomo’s initiative will impact how contracted work is distributed. McLeod said that in the past, if a MWBE landed a contract on a larger project, it might get a check but then be shut out of the actual work. “You can’t grow your business that way, you can’t learn anything. We didn’t come here to play, we came to do work.”