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Minority businesses find support

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - Nervous minority businesses said they felt some
reassurance after hearing from panels of government diversity specialists
at the recent 5th National Multicultural Business Conference, held at
Foxwoods Casino Resort March 30-April 2.

The speakers emphasized their commitment to doing business with minority-
and women-owned companies, even though new government policies seemed to
signal a chillier atmosphere.

"You mean I can start sleeping again at night," said Ellen Faris, director
of marketing for Native American Management Services, at one session. Faris
later told Indian Country Today that she was concerned that government
trends toward consolidating contracts and standardizing equipment would
make it harder for small businesses to compete.

As an example, a speaker from the Transportation Security Administration
said that the Homeland Security Department was working toward issuing the
same type of sidearm for different agencies, so that the government would
be procuring two or three brands instead of 30.

Faris said that a small minority business would not "have a large enough
footprint" to bid successfully for a contract that size.

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In addition, she said, there was a backlash in Washington, D.C. against the
extensive use of subcontractors in Iraq. She said private companies had
become scapegoats for scandals like the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.

The sequence of panels strove to overcome these concerns. Durie White,
operations director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business
Utilization at the U.S. State Department, responded to a complaint about
lack of response from her office by giving out her own telephone number.

The panelists, seasoned veterans of the conference trail, also advised
applicants on how to make an effective presentation. Ralph Thomas,
associate administrator of NASA, urged businesspeople to give detail about
the product or service they offered and how it fit the needs of his
department, not simply to ask for help.

Thomas said minority businesses should try teamwork with each other, not
just with large corporations. "What's going to make diversity people across
the nation hold hands and sing 'Oh happy day' is when instead of partnering
with a big company, three or four minority- or women-owned businesses say
they are going to partner together and take on the big guys," he said.

The private sector also emphasized that it was serious. Home Depot outlined
the company's elaborate Internet-based system for screening sales pitches
from minority businesses and putting them in front of the procurement
officers at its far-flung stores. Applicants with minority business
certification could log on to and fill out
a form that would go into the procurement system.

The conference also featured an awards banquet to honor Fortune 500
companies and government agencies most dedicated to supporting diversity.
Several events, including a reception at the spectacular Pequot Museum,
promoted networking. About 850 people from the United States, Canada,
Puerto Rico and even South Africa attended the sessions, arranged by of Southport, Conn.