At a young age, Wendy Sullivan was interested in construction. She eventually opened a residential property and development company and transitioned, 15 years later, into commercial construction. She became an entrepreneur because it “seemed to me to be closely aligned with determining your own destiny, financially or otherwise.”There has been one obstacle, however: How do you get in the door for large contract work when the buyers are comfortable with long-standing relationships?
The State of Minnesota began to wonder the same thing. How many businesses owned by women get state contracts? It was one of the questions the governor’s office tracked in 2015. Since then, government spending on women-owned businesses — though still small — has grown 85 percent from 2015 to 2017.
In dollar terms, from July 2014 to 2015, the state spent $14.3 million — less than one percent — on women- and minority-owned businesses, from construction to food service. That number increased to $75 million by the end of 2017. Although still not a substantial percentage, it is an improvement.
Alice Roberts-Davis is head of the state’s Office of Equity in Procurement, created to “ensure greater equity in state contracting and construction.” This effort is important, she says, because diverse “people who own businesses tend to hire people who are most like them.” Thus the share of the pie of state money will go toward employing a more representative group of residents.
To illustrate the disadvantages women and minority-owned business owners face, the office sent puzzle boxes to procurement professionals across the state. These boxes can be opened a certain way. Some received all of the information to open the box, and additional “funds” to “hire” consultants. Others did not — and were not able to open the box.
It was mandatory training for 800 purchasing professionals. The experiment gave them a practical understanding of the frustration of certain businesses to get a foot in the door. “It really did drive home the point that everyone is working at different levels,” Roberts-Davis says. “That we have to do all we can to accommodate those different levels [of entry] and give everyone an opportunity.”
Sullivan founded WENRICH Property & Development, a property management company, in 2006. A few years later she read that Minnesota’s Department of Transportation was struggling to find women and minority contractors for projects. She attended National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC) meetings, where other contractors advised her to find a niche.
“I had ambitions to install guardrails on the highway,” Sullivan says. “Others were honest about the monopoly, potential resistance, and limited resources a newbie would have entering that scope of the industry. A former construction labor relations professional, Martha Henrickson, suggested chain link fencing.”
“I am forever grateful for that suggestion,” says Sullivan. “Along the way I have had support from many fabulous people — a lot of them woman and minorities who understand the journey. A strong network has been key for our sustaining existence and growth. I am not afraid to reach out and admit I don’t know.”
WENRICH received two large fencing projects through the state initiative, and Sullivan hopes for more in the coming year. The contracts are for fencing and fence post removal and repairs, gate installation, vegetation removal, and traffic control.
Sullivan says that the state government’s focus on hiring women- and minority-led businesses “starts a conversation. Some general contractors would [not] look our way if there were not mandates.”
She believes the contracts “set the standard, or give permission for private contractors to implement this into their culture.” Sullivan says this is a “door-opener,” not a “given” to be awarded contracts. “The business must be earned and the performance as a credible contractor must be there as well.”