State summit for diverse business owners draws a big crowd in Newark

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

A state-sponsored summit designed to boost businesses owned by women and minorities drew hundreds to the NJIT gymnasium in Newark on Friday, entrepreneurs and others hoping to share in the billions of tax dollars spent each year by governments in New Jersey.

The daylong event, dubbed NJ Connects, was convened to link business owners up with the government agencies that make purchases and award contracts for the state and other public agencies. It’s a big part of a broader effort by Gov. Phil Murphy to improve diversity in state government and among the businesses it contracts with.

Friday’s host was a senior member of the governor’s administration, Hester Agudosi, who as the state’s first chief diversity officer, is herself an incarnation of the progressive policies of the Democratic chief executive in an increasingly diverse state.

Agudosi, veteran of state government, talked of the thinking behind the summit, and the assistance it might provide to business owners who may not be familiar with dealing with Trenton.

“It gives them an opportunity under one roof, to not have to navigate through all of state government or to try to figure out how they can connect to corporate supply chains,” she said.

Murphy, who’s on a trade mission to India, was not at the summit, but numerous members of his cabinet were on hand, including Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and state Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio.

“This is a priority of ours in the Murphy administration,” said Oliver, who was part of the first discussion of the day, labeled “Building A Stronger and Fairer Economy.” “There has never been a chief diversity officer, but we can look at the ‘silos’ across agencies in our state. We need to open up business opportunity to everyone.”

Muoio noted that her department is responsible for $2 billion in goods and services purchased by the state every year. And that’s only a part of what Trenton spends.

“These are your tax dollars at work,” she said, during a morning panel discussion that included George Helmy, Murphy’s chief of staff, and Matt Platkin, his chief counsel. “It’s a tremendous purchasing power in a very richly diverse state. And we want to make sure that the opportunities are available to everyone in a way that reflects the state.”

Oliver, who spend 16 years as a New Jersey legislator, advised the audience to consider going to a lawmaker for help.

“It is very infrequent that we see minority and women-owned businesses knock on the door of their local legislator,” she said. “Your local legislator can enact a law with the support of a governor that can overnight change the trajectory of your business.”

The third panel, encompassing cabinet officers and state agency heads, also featured James Rhee, president of Secaucus-based Ashley Stewart, a women’s clothing line with 88 stores in 22 states. He addressed the state could do to help companies like his.

“The single most important thing that New Jersey can do for Ashley Stewart is invest in education,” he said.

Attendees seemed to welcome the opportunity to network.

Dorothena Bonham said her company was looking to expand its business into the Garden State. “We’re from New York, right over the bridge, and we specialize in plumbing supplies,” she said.

“I think it’s great to bring people together, all these relationships we made,” said Jill Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a Newark-based nonprofit. “That’s why you have difficulty getting people to sit down because of talking, connecting. And that’s the whole point of this.”

Murphy has made diversity a top issue since taking office early last year. In addition to naming Agudosi and establishing an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, he’s also selected the state’s first-ever female-majority cabinet. His attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, is the nation’s first Sikh-American attorney genera, and Sue Fulton, who leads the Motor Vehicle Commission, is believed to be New Jersey’s first openly gay cabinet member.