JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
And we turn now from health in schools to the health of the economy with a look at minority-owned businesses. Economists are at odds over whether the nation's economy is on the verge of bouncing back or if it will get worse before it gets better. Unemployment nationwide hovers just under 10 percent, and minority-owned businesses are disproportionately harder hit than white-owned companies.
Tomorrow, minority business owners gather here in Washington for the annual Minority Enterprise Development Week Conference. Joining us to talk about the impact this community is feeling from the recession is Rick Wade. He's a senior advisor to the secretary of commerce and helps to oversee the department's outreach to minority businesses. Welcome to the program.
Mr. RICK WADE (Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Commerce): Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
LUDDEN: Can you give me a sense of what you've been hearing from minority business owners? How are they being impacted?
Mr. WADE: Well, you know, like all business owners, there is a tremendous impact, unfortunately, because of the downturned economy, the recession. Access to capital is a major issue that has traditionally posed the problems for minority businesses to grow and expand. And you're absolutely right, I think they've been more dramatically affected.
A lot of them are small companies or medium-sized companies, and that's what this conference has been about, and we're trying to make a priority across the administration that we can provide the kind of support to sustain these companies and help us create jobs.
LUDDEN: You have mentioned access to credit as a problem. What else are the top structural difficulties that minority-owned businesses face?
Mr. WADE: I think in addition to access to capital, it is an understanding, again, how this complicated - and it is complicated - the complicated procurement processes within federal government really work. And we're trying to make that a more user-friendly process.
LUDDEN: And why would that be more complicated for a minority-owned business than not?
Mr. WADE: Well, again, I think a lot of these companies are small, and they don't have the access and the resources to be able to dedicate, for example, like business-development strategies or business analysts to do the research to be able to understand and figure out where the opportunities are and where they can be most competitive.
The other area that minority companies are challenged with, again, is how to compete in this new economy that we are reinventing. How do you compete in a global marketplace? How do you compete in a green economy? Which means a restructuring often and a realignment of their current resources, and we're working with them to be able to transition, to be competitive in this new economy.
LUDDEN: So what is the administration doing for them?
Mr. WADE: You know, what President Obama and Vice President Biden, who actually chairs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, have designated Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, as well as SBA Administrator Karen Mills, to work towards reaching out.
LUDDEN: And SBA, Small Business Administration.
Mr. WADE: Small Business Administration, to reach out to minority companies across America and to create a pathway for them to be competing and to take advantage of these Recovery Act opportunities, and we're excited.
I mean, from everything from webinars to workshops through our Minority Business Development Agency and Commerce, there are regional offices all over the country. They're all engaged at the local level across America.
LUDDEN: And are there specific stimulus funds set aside for these minority-owned companies?
Mr. WADE: Well, there are no set-asides. But - however, of course, Small Business Administration has a goal of about 23 percent, which includes small and veteran-owned companies.
LUDDEN: Sorry, 23 percent of the economic stimulus money would go to minority companies?
Mr. WADE: Yes, well, that's always been a goal that's applicable across federal procurement as a guideline, which obviously applies, in this case as well, to the Recovery Act.
LUDDEN: How will you gauge success, though, you know, in your efforts? How can you measure if it's working?
Mr. WADE: Yeah, well, we're putting together now some tracking and reporting requirements that would be applicable to the Recovery Act funds and contractors and subcontractors that they can report back, as they have been able to award contracts, had been successful in that process.
So we're putting that in place now. I think the Small Business Administration has a system in place that captures the small companies. However, we want to make that broader and capture the minority companies as to the extent that we can. And the president is committed, and we're all committed, to making sure that minority companies and small companies can be competing and be successful, and there have been success stories.
LUDDEN: Because when President Obama was asked specifically about the high unemployment among African-Americans at a press conference, he kind of rejected the notion of reaching, you know, helping that community specifically and said, look, the best I can do is to help the economy improve across the board because that's when minority-owned businesses do better. How do you reconcile that with your efforts?
Mr. WADE: You know, I don't think that our goals are different. I mean, I think the fact is that if we can get this economy moving in the right direction that certainly benefits all companies who are in the business of creating jobs. And we're trying to keep the doors open.
However, understandably, as we talked about earlier, there are some disadvantages that minority companies often experience. One, for example, many of the small companies don't have the capacity to hire lobbyists and to have people here to - and they certainly don't have the capacity oftentimes to navigate what oftentimes is a very complex government bureaucracy, particularly as related to the procurement process.
So, you know, to the extent that we can help them with that, and that's what we're doing, reaching out, helping to make them aware, educating them on the opportunities and to the extent that we can - walking down that road with them to being competitive and being successful in this procurement environment.
LUDDEN: I gather that because of the economy, some businesses who might have liked to have come to this conference in Washington maybe couldn't afford to. Is that right?
Mr. WADE: That may be very well the case and, you know, that's why a lot of the conference will be streamed online. They can be able to access by going to mbda.gov the conference proceedings and have access to the same information. But that is a good point, and we're working diligently to also have that one-on-one interaction at the local level.
LUDDEN: You know, because the recession is tough for so many businesses across the board, I mean, is there any concern that having this special conference, specifically for minority-owned businesses, gives the appearance of some special treatment?
Mr. WADE: No, I mean, actually, Minority Business Development Agency, which was created years ago, is specifically charged with the responsibility to do outreach to minority businesses and advance efforts around growth and development. And again, you know, to the extent at which we can help minority companies be successful, we're helping our entire American economy, and so there's a real value add.
I mean, you look at the numbers alone, where minority companies generated, according to the recent census data, $661 billion in annual revenues and employ more than four million people. That is a significant stakehold in our economy. So it's very important that we make sure that we can help, not only sustain but help expand and grow that aspect of our economy.
LUDDEN: Rick Wade is the deputy chief of staff for the Department of Commerce. He also oversees the department's minority business efforts and community outreach. He joined us here in our Washington studio. Thanks so much.
Mr. WADE: Well, thank you for having me.
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LUDDEN: Still to come, Muslims around the world are observing the holy month of Ramadan. But here in the U.S., how should Muslim children balance their religious obligations with their academic and social ones?
Mr. JAMEEL JOHNSON: If my boys could not fast and play football, too, then football would have to wait, and they would fast first because the participation in the sport is not obligatory on any level.
LUDDEN: Our panel of parents discuss what traditions from Ramadan they pass down to their children. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.
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