Q&A with Lydia Muñiz, Governor’s Advocate for Minority, Women and Emerging Small Businesses
What is your main charge as the Governor’s Advocate for Minority, Women and Emerging Small Businesses?
My position falls under statute, and was initially created in 1987. The charge for the position – directed by the Governor – is to develop business opportunities for minority, women and emerging small businesses.
My position also serves as the policy adviser to the Governor, to keep a pulse on what’s going on in the business community, as it pertains to women- and minority-owned businesses. For example, if a proposed policy change has a potential negative impact on communities of color, my charge is to make the Governor, legislature and state agencies aware of the issues.
The statute is very clear that the position is designed to empower communities of color, and bring their business needs and issues to the forefront.
In prior years, there were active set-aside programs specifically targeting minority and women-owned businesses. In 1987, we were beginning to see the wave of legal challenges that were coming as a result of those programs. Anticipating that legal challenges were possible in Oregon, the legislature saw an opportunity to create more stability, by creating the position and the office. Because the position reports to the Governor, it ensures that supporting minority and women-owned businesses will always be a priority.
How has your previous professional background prepared you for the role?
I worked very closely with my late husband, who was an attorney, in establishing and growing his legal practice. Through his work, I had a direct connection to running a small business. He passed away a year ago, and it was left to me to close down the office.
I began my service in state government in 1989, and worked with the Office of Minority, Women and Emerging Small Business, which is the certification office. At that time my job was to interview business owners and determine eligibility for certification. I worked on developing and streamlining the certification office infrastructure, with the goal of creating a less burdensome process for businesses. Through that job, I spent a lot of one-on-one time in meetings with many of the business owners and certified firms. We had to be knowledgeable about all areas of business, so I learned about a variety of industry areas such as construction, professional services and service industries.
I came to the Governor’s Office in 1995. While I work with the same constituents, my work is now closer to the state agencies, the legislature and the Governor. I liken my current role as that of a marketing director – I am the go-between for the business community and state agencies and the legislature. I help facilitate discussions and bring concerns and issues of small businesses to the forefront.
How has the business environment changed for minority and women-owned small businesses since you were appointed to the post in 2000?
The biggest change has been in the globalization of business. There is increased competition brought on by larger, national companies, and we have local companies that are much smaller than the competition.
The Internet age created a huge worldwide vendor base. Before, we dealt with more local business opportunities. Now, when there’s a contract opportunity with the state, there is the potential for worldwide competition.
Competition is healthy and makes one a better businessperson; you’re constantly evaluating and analyzing your services and operations. The challenge for small businesses is that they are competing with larger businesses now. For example, a large corporation may have a department dedicated solely to contracting and reviewing bids, whereas small businesses may be a one or two-person shop that does everything. The pressures are much greater for our business communities of color.
What are some of the most pressing issues for small, minority-owned businesses in Oregon, specifically for business owners of color?
Technology is a big issue; even though we are now about 17 years into the Internet world, there are still some very significant challenges for small business owners, particularly in communities of color. In Oregon, we not only have a digital divide, but we also have a geographic divide. There are still pockets in Oregon that don’t have access to cable, broadband or wireless technologies.
Some of our small businesses continue to struggle to keep up with technology. Trying to find enough time in the day to bid on projects, work on marketing, and do the actual work; there isn’t always enough time left to keep up with technology.
What resources are available to small businesses to help meet those needs?
The Advocate’s Office is a great place to start; we have good contacts with state agencies, and can help refer businesses to specific agencies. In Oregon, we are lucky to have the Small Business Administration office in Portland; a very valuable resource for small business owners. We have Small Business Development Centers throughout Oregon that also serve as resources. In Oregon, we are also very lucky to have resources within our local minority business organizations that receive funds through the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department. Organizations like OAME, ONABEN, OMEN, the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, Interface Network and others. As sub-contractors they share in the responsibility to provide technical assistance and one-on-one service to communities of color.
What are some of the highlights of program offerings?
We are a small office: one part-time and two full-time staff members. What we’ve been able to do is leverage those resources and partner with different community groups. We provide on time and important information to our business community through our newsletters and other communications.
We keep an eye on legislation that could impact our small businesses. If necessary, we testify on behalf of the business community. If there is a negative impact on small businesses, we work on sharing information with legislators about the issues.
Through the clearinghouse, certified minority, women and emerging small businesses are matched with contracting opportunities. When a contracting opportunity is notified to the Advocate’s Office, a search is conducted of the state certified firm’s data base; the businesses who best meet the agency need are informed of the opportunity for follow up. We also facilitate discussions and introductions between businesses and state agencies; The Advocate provides consultative services to agencies who want assistance with outreach methods. We also provide training for state agency buyers to help them in doing business with certified firms. The initiation of the Governor’s Marketplace (annual) Conference seven years ago was an initiative led by the Advocate’s Office and has reached out to hundreds of minority and women businesses.
How has the Governor’s Marketplace changed over time? What were some of the reasons for the change in format?
The Governor’s Marketplace Conference began in 2000 as a way to create opportunities for state agencies to meet minority and women business owners. The event was meant to draw people together and foster relationship building. We found that there was a lot of interest from other government agencies, so for the last six years, we’ve also included local government, city government, colleges and universities. It has been a successful high-energy event.
As I thought about how to best meet the needs of the business community, I came back to the importance of building relationships. Oftentimes, when we’re in a business situation, we rely on who we know, what we know about them, and whether we’re comfortable with them. So much of that goes into business decision-making. The annual conference model was a successful event, but it didn’t allow people to spend a lot of time on one-on-one relationship-building, or said differently to make “connections.”
To create those opportunities, I decided to focus on holding smaller events that allow businesses and agencies to connect in a different, more intimate way. We’ve moved away from the big annual conference concept and instead our new strategy will concentrate on smaller events for specific business clusters.
We will look at our list of 2,000 certified minority, women-owned and emerging small businesses to identify significant pockets of services, like IT, for example. We will bring groups of vendors together with a number of agencies who will talk about specific and long-range contracting opportunities within a specific focus area. The next event will be in Spring 2008 and will focus on the construction industry, both highway and non-highway construction. I am confident that vendors who attend will walk away with greater knowledge about how to do business with the state as well as connecting with the agency decision makers for several of the upcoming projects.
What new programs are in the works for the Governor’s Advocate’s Office?
The Governor’s Advocate’s Office is involved with many and assorted projects and partnerships all intended to engage minority and women vendors in business opportunities with the state of Oregon. One significant project coming up is the Oregon State Hospital, which will involve building two brand new and rather large facilities; I’m already talking with the project managers for that job and discussing ways to include our certified firms. I will work closely with the Department of Human Services/Oregon State Hospital to identify opportunities and to help the agency with their community outreach. This is going to be a huge project for Oregon and one that I will stay very involved with. We will provide opportunities for our minority and women businesses to learn about upcoming opportunities through our office newsletters, community outreach and informational seminars.