My mind races and my heart swells as I reflect with pride on the ability of black people to persevere and overcome in these United States. 400 years ago, in 1619, the first enslaved people from Africa were brought to the shores of the United States of America, landing in Jamestown, Virginia. From slavery to Jim Crow laws, which were abolished in the latter part of the 20th Century, to current institutionalized forms of discrimination we press forward.
Although this forward movement is evident in all facets of life such as education, entertainment, and politics there is still a considerable amount to grow, particularly in the business world. While rates of black entrepreneurship are astoundingly high in certain sectors, I do question how many businesses in the government contracting arena have experienced the ability to build wealth – especially firms that are still in the subcontracting space.
As a professional services firm that wants to grow our capabilities to prime more projects, we have often found ourselves as subcontractors beholden to nominal percentages and abnormally slow payment processes that threaten the solvency of our business. It often feels like programs designed to help such as the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program and others pigeon hole us in a way that larger companies either don’t realize or are accustomed to. For example, if a project states that 30% should go to DBE firms that percentage is often split up over a number of companies making the revenue generation and ability to build the capacity of the business pretty low.
If I were alone in this feeling, I wouldn’t be writing this piece; however, I’ve talked to a number of minority companies who live this experience regularly. We are often told to not lead with our status as a minority business but on the flip side, we are often only called because we meet that requirement on a contract. I’ve had this stated explicitly. It’s disheartening that because there are programs designed to ensure some level of fairness and collaboration for underrepresented groups, there is often a perception of less value add and inability to perform.
Business ownership can create the opportunity to bring generations out of poverty, build communities, and create prosperity. Until minority businesses are seen for the value that they bring to the table, the diversity of thought, technical merit, and the quality of our work, I wonder if we will be able to truly flourish in a system that still marginalizes our contributions and takes advantage of our disadvantages. While there are ways to overcome and outgrow some of this, it’s an unfortunate box we maneuver around – being black in business.
Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC a community, multimodal, and environmental planning firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.