More minority- and women-owned businesses are getting Allegheny County contracts, but advocates say the smallest among them still need help.
As of this year, nearly 540 firms have been certified by the county's Department of Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, which helps grow and prepare minority businesses to compete in the marketplace. That's up from 463 two years ago, according to a report released this month.
That's good news for Ruth Byrd-Smith, whose eight-year term as the department's director has molded her into a half-mentor, half-advocate for entrepreneurs who in previous generations would have been shooed away by the business community because of their race or gender.
"For many, the American Dream is two things -- you buy a house or you build a business," she said. "When you put the key in the door of your business every day, that's freedom."
By county rule, contractors are required to make a "good-faith effort" to hire minority- or women-owned subcontractors, or those who are based in a disadvantaged area. Allegheny County aims to have 13 percent of its business go to minority-owned businesses and an additional 2 percent to women-owned businesses.
In some areas, Ms. Byrd-Smith has far exceeded those goals. More than 21 percent of the county's public works contracts went to minority firms in 2012, with another 39.6 percent going to businesses headed by women, according to the department's annual report. Minority entrepreneurs also picked up 13.6 percent of county service and commodity contracts; women-owned businesses received 2.5 percent.
But more needs to be done, said M. Gayle Moss, chairwoman of the department's advisory committee and former president of the Pittsburgh NAACP. While she believes Ms. Bryd-Smith's work has been essential in helping larger minority businesses develop -- businesses with earnings of more than $1 million a year account for 83 percent of all earnings in the program's portfolio -- Ms. Moss would like to see more attention paid to smaller entrepreneurs.
"When you walk around and see who has contracts doing what -- some of the specs are kind of high for those smaller businesses," she said. "They are due some part of this wealth that goes through this county and city."
Ms. Moss said she's discussed her concerns with the committee and is examining other agencies to see how they've tackled the issue. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has given her his support, she said, and she hopes to have a concrete plan put together next year.
Along the same lines, Ms. Byrd-Smith is working to make more minority businesses the "prime" contractor on county work, moving them up from subcontractor status. She still has a way to go: Only 12 percent of service and commodity work awarded to minority- or women-owned firms went to businesses acting as the prime contractor in 2012.
But that's where education comes in, she said. The director has seen firms bloom from generating revenue of $170,000 a year to more than $4 million, thanks to her department's efforts -- and often times, it's enough to provide the institutional knowledge that older firms take for granted.
"If you're a 100-year-old business, if you grew up in a place where around the dinner table, you talked about the family business, you're more comfortable," she said, noting that few minority businesses have that advantage. "I'm hoping we'll be able to get our businesses to a point that they feel they're ready to fly."
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497.