NJ African-American Chamber of Commerce helps minority-owned businesses compete

BY Rhonda Schaffler, Correspondent |

The governor could soon sign into law a bill requiring the state Treasury to consider contracting women- and minority-owned financial institutions to help manage state investments. The state’s partnering with the African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey to give women- and minority-owned businesses an even shot at getting state contracts. It’s founder, president and CEO John Harmon, sat down with Rhonda Schaffler.

Schaffler: Your organization is really in many ways about leveling the playing field — giving opportunities to other businesses who might not be aware they even exist

Harmon: Absolutely, right. You know, the African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey was established in about 2007 to do exactly what you just said — to level the playing field and increase the overall competitiveness of the state of New Jersey by including diverse businesses.

Schaffler: And you’ve just recently started a new initiative that helps businesses learn about how to bid for government contracts, which can be very lucrative, so why was this part missing? Why were businesses unaware about this, and how will the program help them?

Harmon: All great questions. A number of years of advocating with local mayors and county officials about the importance of bonding. Bonding in essence guarantees the owner that the project will get done. The contractor doing the work is a vetted contractor and that insurance so if that contractor falls short, the bond is called and someone replaces that individual and the work gets done. And in essence it is a prerequisite to do public contracting and many businesses over the years, particularly a minority- and women-owned businesses and small businesses of the state have not taken part in a lot of the major contracts due to the fact they didn’t have a bond.

Schaffler: So you are actually holding classes to teach them how to do this.

Harmon: Absolutely. The state of New Jersey has funded it, working with the EDA — Tim Sullivan, the president — and Gov. Murphy have really put a lot of energy behind this great initiative. We’re hosting classes throughout the state to ensure that many of New Jersey’s small, minority- and women-owned businesses take advantage of this taxpayer-funded program.

Schaffler: I know you’ve also spoken highly of the Christie administration. It seems that state government has really gotten behind you and backed what you’re doing.

Harmon: Absolutely, so starting with Gov. Christie who signed the bill into law, it was Sen. Pennachio and Sen. Rice who co-sponsored the legislation, followed by Jamel Holley, an assemblyman, and BettyLou DeCroce. They all came together to drive this legislation, which was ultimately signed unanimously by the legislators, and then Gov. Christie brought it forward. So we’re pretty excited to now have the program and have Gov. Murphy put a little more energy behind it with the EDA in partnership with the Chamber. We’re pretty excited of what the potential outcomes would be for businesses that are looking to participate in more public contracts.

Schaffler: How would you describe the state of affairs for minority-owned businesses in New Jersey? Are their challenges unique?

Harmon: I would say yes, many minority- and women-owned businesses are not getting the requite share of opportunities. If you look at the percentage, it’s very, very low. And with programs like this it is our hope that we will change that because a bonded contractor — and this is not limited to construction, so it’s any public contract typically north of $200,000 you’re required to bond. This would help many more of these businesses get on these public contract opportunities.

Schaffler: Beyond the government opportunities, why have we seen some of these businesses lag behind in opportunities? What else is missing for them?

Harmon: Access to capital, and the EDA, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, has put forth a number of programs to backstop them. But if you don’t have a contract, you’re not going to get them the capital you need to grow your business, so the bond is the initial step. If you’re a bonded business you’re also a bankable business, so I think these two components — banking and bonding — helps a business pretty good to get on the right trajectory to be successful.

Schaffler: Don’t we have certain entities that particularly seek out minority-owned business owners though?

Harmon: Yes, the other thing that we’re working with Gov. Murphy on is getting goals put in place in the state of New Jersey. The state is about to commission a disparity study which will really spell out where the shortcomings are for many of the smaller businesses, and then the governor will hopefully be able to institute goals. This will incentivize more of the large firms to include minority- and women-owned, and small businesses, across the state.

Schaffler: And when do you expect that study will be commissioned?

Harmon: We’re prayerful that coming into 2019 that that study will not only be commissioned, but we will have some results that we can institute those goals.

Schaffler: You’re not a man to brag so I will brag for you, but the New Jersey African-American Chamber of Commerce was recognized nationally this year for your efforts — the top chamber.

Harmon: Very humbling, you know. I’m a part of the National Black Chamber, about 150 or so chambers across the United States, and we were tapped to be the top player this year so extremely excited. The staff, and I, and our board had put forth a lot of work looking at a number of best practices across the state and across America to make sure that we’re delivering the best value we can with those who invest in their organization.

Schaffler: So it seems to me that New Jersey in many ways is leading the way for other organizations.

Harmon: I would say New Jersey, if we’re not leading, we’re really pushing for programming and strategies that make us stand out among our peer states across the United States, yes.

Schaffler: You have mentioned that you really have the political backing in New Jersey. If you look nationally, does there need to be more political backing of minority-owned businesses? Does government play an important role?

Harmon: Government plays a significant role, and I often say that the level of reciprocity — and what I mean by that, many minority communities are voting for men and women every day, but the reciprocity in terms of having laws that represent their mutual interests — is something that we have to do a better job at. I would encourage our legislators and local government officials throughout America to pay closer attention to fostering strong relationships with those folks in your communities.