What role can the K-12 education sector play in closing the contract disparity for minority and women-owned businesses?

That question and others will be addressed at the Show MEM the Money: The Education Edition panel, from 6:30- 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25 at Freedom Prep Academy’s Whitehaven campus, 3750 Millbranch Rd. The free event is held in partnership with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Chalkbeat Tennessee and High Ground News. Attendees are asked to register here.

The discussion is the third in a series of citywide conversations about challenges faced by minority and women-owned business, especially for businesses owned by African-Americans, who account for more than 63 percent of Memphis’ population. The first panel was in March, hosted by High Ground News, and the second was in September, in conjunction with High Ground News and HuffPost: Listen to America’s bus tour.

The moderator of Thursday’s panel will be Wendi C. Thomas, editor and publisher of MLK50. 
The panelists are:

Melvin Jones, executive director of the Business Contracting Consortium, a network of black businesspeople working to increase private and public sector contracts with African-American businesses
Roblin Webb, CEO and founder of Freedom Prep Academy, a charter school that has made spending with black-owned businesses a priority
Brian Stockton, the chief of staff for Shelby County Schools, who serves as chairman of SCS Supt. Dorsey Hopson’s senior leadership team and liaison to the Shelby County Board of Education
Jonathan Logan, president of Castle Black Construction, which received a $1.2 million contract with Freedom Prep Academy to build out its elementary school.

White male companies get more than their share

The discussion follows the November release of a Shelby County Schools disparity study that found women- and minority-owned businesses were underused in district contracts. 
The study found SCS, the state’s largest public school district and Memphis’ fifth-largest employer, awards a disproportionate share of contracts to businesses owned by white men.

A “third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color [but)] such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years,” Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede wrote in a Jan. 12 story.
“It was even worse for black-owned construction companies … which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.”

The disparity was made worse by the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. The minority contracting program MCS operated was disbanded — for budget reasons SCS board members cited then — but SCS, which has a $1 billion budget and awards $314 million in contracts annually, hasn’t reinstated the program, Kebede wrote.

The success of black businesses has a special urgency as the city prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. 
 In his last speech, delivered April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple, King called for the city’s black residents to support black owned businesses and to boycott companies that did not employ a share of black employees that matched the city’s black population. “If a city has a 30 percent Negro population,” King said earlier, “then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30 percent of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.”
Apply that measure to minority contracting, and both the private and public sector fall short. 
The issue drew the Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader and longtime advocate for black business development, to town last year, where he went before City Council to demand the city award at least 50 percent of its contracts to minority-owned businesses. That demand, said Joann Massey, director of the city’s business diversity and compliance department, was not feasible, in part because there aren’t enough minority-owned businesses in some industries to meet Jackson’s demand. 
According to the most recent federal data, although there are more black-owned companies than white-owned companies in Memphis, black businesses bring in less than 1 percent of business receipts citywide. 
City and county disparity studies have found companies owned by white men receive far more than their share of government contracts than the number of white male-owned businesses would indicate. For example, white male-owned businesses received 27 percent of the City of Memphis’ contracts over $10 million, compared with just 3 percent for black businesses.

Some government agencies do better than others. Under the leadership of Jozelle Booker, now president of the Mid-South Minority Business Continuum, in 2016 the MLGW Supplier Diversity Program awarded about $76 million in contracts to minority and local small businesses, representing 33 percent of MLGW’s overall procurement spend.

In 2017, the Greater Memphis Chamber asked members to do 300 new contracts with minority-owned business contracts and 300 new contracts with locally owned small businesses. The chamber met its goal, although it did not measure the dollar amount of the contracts or whether black businesses received a proportional share of contracts.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.