MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Doing business with the Shelby County Government can be very lucrative if you get selected, and for years, the County has been in the hot seat over who it’s doing business with.
It’s become a standard question at the Shelby County Commission meeting when reviewing companies recommended to get county contracts.
“What’s the minority makeup?” is a question often pushed by newly elected members of the Commission.
“So here we go again that a white male-owned business is able to get the $500,000 on our watch. It’s not adversarial. It’s just literally a broken system that only serves the interest of white males,” said Commissioner Britney Thornton.
At one Commission meeting, Commissioner Thornton questioned the purchasing department about the minority makeup of every contract that came before the Commission.
“So this is a huge issue because all up and down this agenda today. We have seen clear systemic breakdown,” she said.
Thornton said she wasn’t even aware of the disparity issue before she got on the Commission.
“It’s documented. About 55% of Shelby County is Black. How much is the spend in Shelby County with Black people? Generously less than 10%? That’s a generous figure,” she said.
The numbers have been a sticking point in Shelby County Government for years and even led to some lawsuits. Right now, we are told only 7 to 9 % of County contracts go to minority and women-owned businesses.
“I mean, it’s insulting to me,” Thornton said.
Shep Wilbun heads up the Office of Diversity and Compliance for the County. He is now overseeing the County goal of reaching 25% minority and women business contracts with a caveat.
“The new process involves setting a goal on a project-by-project basis based upon the availability of women and minority vendors to provide that service to perform tasks,” Wilbun said. “So for some projects, we will have goals that are zero. Some we will have goals as high as 49%.”
But what we also heard time and time again at Commission meetings is that minority business owners were filing out the Request for Proposals issued by the County, but not following through to the end and ultimately not getting the work.
That concerns new County Commissioner Charlie Caswell.
“Many of these individuals are just trying to have a better quality of life, but they can’t when we’re not allowing them or they are not at the table in the part of this process,” Casewell said. “So I believe that we begin to help build up generational wealth through entrepreneurship and by helping these business owners we’re going to help more minorities in this majority county to become successful.”
This is why he pushed for his district to be one of the first to get certification training on how to become a vendor with the County.
Saturday sessions like this were held all over Shelby County with business owners learning how to increase their visibility, get certified, and become a registered vendor with Shelby County.
And don’t just think of it as only construction or building projects that the County has available. The County does a lot more, and for just about every action or department, there is an opportunity.
“To building health department buildings to the jail, renovations, and changes to courtrooms to supplies and office supplies. Even just something as simple as coffee,” Wilbun said.
“We got a $1.6 billion budget and we got over 6,000 employees. That’s a lot of toilet tissue. That’s a lot of paper,” Caswell said. “That’s a lot of a lot of many things that we’re missing out on that I feel that we can give these individuals the opportunity to get.”
Business owner Ellen Isaacman knows it can make a difference.
“Every little bit of new business is what we live and breathe on, you know,” Isaacman said.
Her company, Good Advertising, recently got a contract to do marketing and graphic design for Shelby County.
“We’re thrilled it’s a foot in the door and that’s all we wanted,” Isaacman said.
She encourages business owners to get certified with the County and find ways to work together.
“They really encourage that for the smaller businesses. If we don’t get like a really huge contract and another company gets a big contract, then contact the people who got a big contract and say, ‘Hey, can we help you?’ and Shelby County loves that,” she said.
Meanwhile, Thornton said she will continue questioning every contract and pushing to increase minority participation.
“Now I have people in my district and beyond that, say keep probing, keep asking questions. Here’s the context for why,” she said.
For more information on how to get certified with Shelby County and upcoming training classes for business owners, call the Shelby County Equal Opportunity Compliance Office at 901-222-1100.