By M.V. Greene
A collision course is surfacing at the intersection of America’s spiraling racial wealth gap and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021.
In an address to National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc.’s recent inaugural Minority Business Economic Forum, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said infrastructure spending is a foundation that “will underpin our economy for our lifetime.”
“It is also the biggest opportunity for wealth creation that has happened in our lifetime,” he added, speaking to the Forum’s hybrid audience of corporate and procurement executives, public officials, policymakers, regulators, economists, civil rights leaders, minority suppliers and entrepreneurs.
In her welcome to the Forum, NMSDC CEO and President Ying McGuire said the infrastructure law — along with other public and private initiatives — will create an unparalleled opportunity to drive U.S. minority business development.
“The American dream is now on the precipice of crisis. We must seize the moment and take action for the future of our country and for our economy,” she told the Forum, a sentiment that reverberated throughout the event that took place in Chicago.
“Think big. Think out of the box. Don’t be limited in your vision,” said minority business advocate James Lowry, president and CEO, James H. Lowry & Associates Inc., in a message to leaders of minority business enterprises. He spoke during a Forum chat with John W. Rogers Jr., chairman, co-CEO and chief investment officer, Ariel Investments LLC, titled “The Chicago Agenda: Trailblazing Beyond the Supply Chain.”
Davos for minority business
In an exclusive interview with Minority Business News USA following the Forum, McGuire said the first-time event was intentionally styled after the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Davos is an impartial program established in 1971 to engage political, business, cultural and other societal leaders to address global, regional and industry agendas.
In keeping with Davos’ focus on providing solutions to important issues through thought leadership, she said the NMSDC Forum actually was a “catalyst,” rather than a conference, to lead a redefinition and discussion of what minority business development will look like in the next 50 years. In 2022, NMSDC marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.
“We want to be the Davos for minority businesses,” McGuire told MBN. “We want to create a World Economic Forum for minority businesses. We want to be the thought leaders for minority business development in this country and for underserved communities in the world, continuing this tradition year after year.”
An NMSDC expressed goal at the Forum targets an eventual annual accumulation of $1 trillion in revenue by NMSDC-certified minority business enterprises — from about $396 billion in total economic activity currently — as a means of addressing wealth inequity, according to NMSDC’s 2021 Minority Business Economic Impact Report released in May. She noted in her Forum remarks that the racial wealth gap between whites and systematically excluded communities of color during the two years of the pandemic has increased by nearly 70%.
“The question is what do we need to do to accelerate progress? We just can’t wait another 50 years to cover the same distance,” McGuire said.
That Buttigieg came to Chicago with a message of equity is significant. His agency is responsible for administering $567.46 billion of the five-year infrastructure spending for investments in roads and bridges, transit, airports, safety, ports, waterways, electric vehicle chargers, buses and reconnecting communities. Other categories under the bill include investments in clean drinking water and wastewater systems, broadband, energy and power and the environment.
Like Buttigieg, the White House promises that the infrastructure bill “will drive the creation of good-paying union jobs and grow the economy sustainably and equitably, so that everyone gets ahead for decades to come.”
Buttigieg urged the NMSDC Minority Business Economic Forum audience to go to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Equity Action Plan — at transportation.gov/priorities/equity/equity-action-plan — for an outline of how the agency will keep the administration’s promise of economic fairness in transportation through Executive Order 13985, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” that Biden advanced on his first day in office. The order notes “the enormous human costs of systemic racism, persistent poverty and other disparities” and directs federal agencies to take a whole-government approach to address the scourge.
“When we talk about equity in transportation, we focus not only on who is served by the transportation asset … but [also] who is actually going to be doing the work of creating that transportation infrastructure that we will be counting on for the rest of our lives,” Buttigieg told the Forum.
Getting a piece of the pie
Ahead of the Forum, NMSDC’s Chicago affiliate — Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council — has been steadily addressing infrastructure spending opportunities for MBEs. ChicagoMSDC held its 55th Annual Chicago Business Opportunity Fair, or CBOF55, in May, which included a panel titled simply “The Infrastructure Bill.”
Illinois alone, for instance, expects funding over the five years under the law to be $9.8 billion for roads and highway work, $1.4 billion for bridge replacement and repairs and $4 billion to improve public transportation, according to analyses of state-by-state funding.
Earlier this year, ChicagoMSDC presented a virtual “Infrastructure Procurement Luncheon” that brought together state and federal transportation officials, public officials, minority businesses owners and advocates to discuss the ins and outs of the law and how to leverage it.
The luncheon went into great detail about projects that would be coming on board in Illinois and surrounding states and how minority businesses can get a piece of the pie.
John W. Rogers Jr. — whose company launched its “Project Black” initiative in February 2021 through its Ariel Alternatives LLC private asset management entity to scale minority-owned businesses for corporate spend in high-margin vertical economic sectors — addressed corporate supply-chain practices in his Forum chat with Lowry.
Advocates for increasing minority business development view corporate supply chains as a critical hub for boosting economic activity in minority communities to mitigate the racial wealth gap.
Rogers said corporations must remain accountable for promises made during the height of social justice protests during 2020. That includes, he said, ensuring that corporate philanthropy is directed to minority communities; that diversity, equity and inclusion programs are measured at the top levels in corporations not only in broad categories but also in the lower ranks; and that supply-chain engagement with minority-owned companies includes high-yield functions like professional and financial services and technology rather than old-line areas like construction, janitorial and catering.
“We have to remind the CEOs that they have to give us opportunity in everything that they spend money across the board, and then we’ll be able to create some real wealth and sustain this wealth into the next generation,” he told Forum attendees.
Rogers also urged increasing numbers of minorities joining corporate boards to be vigilant in fighting for “economic justice when in the board room.”
The Forum also received a number of virtual and onstage messages from top-level contributors, including Marc Morial, president and CEO, National Urban League Inc.; Earvin “Magic” Johnson, chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises; Alejandra Castillo, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, U.S. Department of Commerce; Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to President Joe Biden, who was responsible for coordinating implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law; Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president, Ariel Investments LLC; Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker; Dave Steward, founder and chairman, World Wide Technology Inc.; Chris James, president and CEO, National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development; and Austan Goolsbee, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor of economics and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.
In addition, NMSDC introduced its newest awards program at the Forum, The Equity Honors, with honorees named in six categories, including Craig Arnold, chairman and CEO, Eaton Corp. PLC, as Chief Executive Officer of the Year.
bipartisan infrastructure bill President Joe Biden National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. Pete Buttigieg NMSDC CEO Ying McGuire Chicago James H. Lowry & Associates Inc. James Lowry The Chicago Agenda Davos Switzerland World Economic Forum NMSDC’s 2021 Minority Business Economic Impact Report U.S. Department of Transportation’s Equity Action Plan Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council Illinois Infrastructure Procurement Luncheon John W. Rogers Jr. Ariel Alternatives LLC Mitch Landrieu Magic Johnson Enterprises Alejandra Castillo Gov. J.B. Pritzker Dave Steward Mellody Hobson Chris James National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development Austan Goolsbee The University of Chicago Booth School of Business