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Commerce department helps minority businesses get ‘a piece of the action’

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Commerce has launched a campaign to help minority businesses access Recovery Act funds.

For American Indian business owners, that means opportunities for grants and contracts above and beyond the almost $3 billion set aside in the act for improvements in Indian health care, education, roads and bridges, water, public safety and housing.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Senior Advisor Rick Wade held a conference call with reporters July 2 to spread the word about the ways the department will reach out and educate minority business people on how they can take advantage of the

hundreds of billions of dollars available in the stimulus package.

“This administration has made it very clear that they want minority business to be aware of the opportunities and for us at Commerce to really make sure they get a fair share of these contracting opportunities under the Recovery Act,” Locke said.

The number of minority businesses has grown over the past four years from 300,000 to almost four million, generating $661 billion in annual revenues and employing more than four million people, Locke said.

“But during these tough economic times we also know that minority-owned firms are among the first to feel the effect and bear the brunt of the economic downturn.”

Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the post of Commerce secretary, said he was familiar with the hardships small businesses bear.

“My dad was a small business owner and constantly struggling so I very much understand the impacts and ups and downs minority firms all across America are facing. I worked in my dad’s grocery store for many years. It was very much a family operation.”

But the federal government is a “huge bureaucracy” that can be difficult to navigate.

“So, that’s why we want to make sure that minority-owned firms are able to access the Recovery Act programs that support them.”

Locke outlined a number of initiatives and resources aimed at helping minority businesses get “a piece of the action.”

The first initiative is the “one-stop shopping” Web site at www.fedbizopps.gov that lists all federal grants and contract opportunities for businesses of all sizes.

More details on grants are available at www.grants.gov, a Web site that lists more than 1,000 federal grant programs totaling $500 billion annually.

“(The federal government) is going to be looking for minority businesses to participate in these grant processes, especially all the grants under the Recovery Act,” Locke said.

Another existing initiative is the Minority Business Development Agency within the Commerce Department. It is the only agency created specifically to help minority firms; last year it helped minority companies obtain $2 billion in contracts.

A new initiative is a series of workshops that will be held all over the country so minority business owners don’t have to spend time and money traveling to Washington for information.

Broadband workshops have been scheduled in Boston, Mass.; Charleston, W.Va.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Lonoke, Ark.; Birmingham, Ala.; Billings, Mont.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Los Angeles, Calif. More information on these workshops can be found at www.broadbandusa.gov.

These workshops will aim specifically to inform companies about contracting opportunities involving Recovery Act opportunities specifically with the Commerce Department’s initiative to bring broadband Internet access to more Americans.

“We will be dispersing some $4.7 billion in broadband grants to nonprofits, cities, states and public-private partnerships. There’s a huge gap in broadband access by people of color and especially seniors,” Locke said.

The grants will be used to create and enhance the infrastructure of broadband service – digging trenches, installing fiber optic and other equipment, and again the department will be looking for the participation of minority firms in determining which projects will be funded.

Finally, Locke reminded minority business owners of the MBDA’s five regional offices that operate in partnership with a network of around 45 minority business centers around the country. These offices provide one-on-one workshops, training and business consulting services to help minority business owners learn about federal contracting opportunities.

Recovery Act workshops are held at events and conferences at the local level to reach minority entrepreneurs and educate them about the procurement process specifically related to the Recovery Act. More information about MBDA’s local centers and services can be found at www.mbda.gov.

The outreach is already underway. On July 6 and 7, the department and its MBDA hosted a major national summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss best practices in business development programs and services to increase the growth and development of minority businesses. In addition, there were discussions about grant and contract opportunities that exist within the federal government and the best way to provide this information to minority businesses.

Wade emphasized the administration and department’s “tremendous commitment” to making sure minority businesses have easy access to the funding opportunities and to implementing “a very robust plan” across the country to fulfill that commitment.

“Minority businesses are absolutely vital to the American economic recovery and we want to make sure they have a fair share of the opportunities.”

Locke confirmed that the available resources are in addition to the specific set aside for Indian country.

“We’re talking about several hundred billions of dollars of projects all across America, whether it’s repairing (a) ship, whether it’s developing devices for the smart grid, whether it’s dollars that go to the state of Washington for bridge repair and road constructions,” Locke said. “We’re looking at all these contracting opportunities and we want to make sure that minority businesses, including Native American businesses, have the opportunities to compete and get contracts under all of these programs.”