Every day, an average of five times a day, Tunisha Walker and Safeena Mecklai talk with each other about what the governments of New York City or New York State are buying. It’s part of their work, helping minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) find opportunities for public sector contracts. They sit at opposite ends of their office at NYC lobbying firm Capalino + Company. It can be a nice way to get some steps in.
“We look at every request for proposals that comes out, city and state. For websites, benefits programs, pop-up cafes. Some really cool IT projects. Marketing campaigns. Everything from lighting to door locks to trucks, stuff that really makes the city run,” Mecklai says. It’s not just idle chat; they have to categorize opportunities, and figure out which kinds of firms would be eligible to submit bids.
Walker recalls one recent RFP for sliding closet door tracks. Not the whole doors, just the tracks along the floor and ceiling. She helped a client submit a bid on the contract with NYCHA, NYC’s public housing agency. She’s seen NYCHA RFPs for appliances, cabinets, even closet rods.
“Those are basic items an MWBE who’s a general supplier can supply,” she says. “We see so many RFPs, some of them are just so bizarre, it’s amazing that there’s a need for it. The simplest things can be RFP’d.”
But finding those RFPs is a tremendous, time-consuming task, especially for MWBE firms, which are typically smaller and understaffed when compared to larger, established firms owned by white men who end up dominating public sector contracting. In fiscal year 2016, NYC procured $15.3 billion worth of goods and services, but only 4.8 percent of that went to MWBEs, according to the latest “Making the Grade” report from NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer. That’s down from 5.3 percent in 2015. Out of the 4,527 city-certified MWBEs, only 994 received city spending on goods or services in FY 2016.
The state is doing better: Just over 25 percent of state agency and authority spending went to MWBEs in fiscal 2015-2016, up from 21 percent in FY 2012-2013 and only 9.9 percent in FY 2009-2010.
Walker and Mecklai just created a new app intended to help boost those numbers called MWBE Connect NY. The app lets users with a paid subscription browse contracting opportunities from the city and the state, and it’s updated daily. According to them, this is the first time both city and state contracting opportunities have been put into one database. The app even does matchmaking. Users create a profile of their business by tagging capabilities, location and even contract size they can fill. The app filters in contracting opportunities that fit the profile.
Walker and Mecklai developed the app to help build the MWBE consulting practice at Capalino + Company, which works with companies and nonprofits across the city.
“MWBEs was something that piqued my interest, because of where I was coming from,” says Mecklai, who previously led a campaign to create a student-majority city council district around the University of California, Berkeley. “It was the combination of coming from advocacy work, wanting to support underrepresented communities, and learning that economic empowerment through MWBE procurement was a way to do that.”
Walker created the MWBE consulting practice at Capalino + Company, leveraging her deep experience with MWBE firms on procurement issues around the state. In 2009, she became the first woman hired as executive director of the NY State Senate Conference of Black Senators. For about four years, she worked under the conference chair, former N.Y. State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, on issues such as updating the state’s MWBE law, which first passed in 1988. Walker found herself meeting with minority entrepreneurs all over the state, from Buffalo (where she attended Buffalo State University) to Rochester to Syracuse to NYC.
“What we wanted to do was create a tool to automate part of the process, so that we could spend more time working with MWBE clients to respond and win these contracts,” says Mecklai. A beta test of the app involved about 20 MWBEs, mostly clients, including firms in healthcare, security, construction, counseling, human services, and advertising and digital marketing.
After a two-week free trial, the subscription costs $600 a year, or $225 a quarter. Walker and Mecklai say they are open to offering discounted subscriptions through organizations like the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a presentation for the app this week. Also attending the presentation were minority entrepreneurs in fashion, food and marketing consultation, as well as a representative of the New York Urban League.
“I know on a different note, a lot of people are scared because of [President Donald Trump],” Walker said at the presentation. “But there is a good side. He is all about infrastructure for development. There will be a lot of opportunities to apply for MWBE certification and to win contracts, grow their businesses, and hopefully help their communities grow as well.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.