Philadelphia Inquirer – Philadelphia should improve contract process to meet goals for diverse businesses (Opinion)

Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia should improve contract process to meet goals for diverse businesses
By Malik Majeed, Guest Columnist
October 23, 2019

Earlier this month, Philadelphia held its Minority Enterprise Development (MED) Week 2019 to highlight minority businesses and connect them to resources that can help their firms grow. At my Philly-based firm, PRWT, we commend the city’s efforts to lift up minority firms and try to level the playing field. But if officials are serious about working with more diverse businesses, there is one thing I think they need to do better: Use discretion.

Malik Majeed at the Enterprise Center’s Lighting the Torch event.

Applying for city contracts is often cumbersome. As a Philadelphia-based company in business for more than 30 years, we know this process well. After a request for proposal (RFP) is publicly announced and posted on the city’s website, firms will spend countless hours completing it, filing hundreds of pages of documents requested by the city and triple-checking all the legal paperwork. Although we have been established for three decades and understand Philadelphia’s RFP process better than most, there are still times when the lengthy process gets the better of our team and one “i” may go un-dotted, or one “t” uncrossed.

While rare, these instances of minor administrative oversight have cost our company business with the city. If this can happen to us — the largest minority-owned business in Philadelphia — it can certainly happen to smaller firms that don’t have the administrative staff dedicated to breaking through the red tape.

To be clear: I am not asking for the city to “hand out” contracts to firms simply because they check off the right boxes. Rather, I am advocating for more meaningful discretion when reviewing proposals than saying no to capable firms because they, for example, neglected to include one form out of 200-plus pages of documents. If the city wants to meet its self-published and admirable goal of 35 percent participation from enterprises owned by women, people of color, and people with disabilities, then it must stop disqualifying firms over de minimis mistakes.

The city is beginning to realize this. The procurement department recently proposed new regulations that would address some of the issues I am raising, including making distinctions between material and immaterial omissions and allowing a grace period of 10 days to correct any inadvertent or reasonable mistakes made in applications.

However, their efforts have to extend further. The city’s team of contracting experts can join with third-party firms and agencies experienced with the procurement process to develop a best practices guide for contracting with Philadelphia. This would provide a road map, or “Insider’s Guide,” to educate vendors of all sizes on how to submit their bids to meet all of the city’s requirements, and on contracting language that can be confusing or overwhelming. In fact, the city could formalize this process with a grant they received this summer from City Accelerator, a program that advises cities on devising policies that improve conditions for low-income communities.

The city’s focus has been increasing its minority-and-women-owned participation levels and providing adequate enforcement through the Office of Economic Opportunity, ensuring diverse firms receive the appropriate amount of work and payment as stipulated in the contract, which should be a priority. However, it is just as important to provide educational resources and tools that allow all firms to understand what is required to become a city contractor. Education is key if the city really wants to remove barriers prohibiting minority firms of all sizes from working in the city.

According to the City’s reports, it has not yet achieved its goal of 35% minority participation. As firms have learned this month, there are many opportunities for small, diverse businesses to compete in our city, but too few dollars actually going to these companies.

While Philadelphia recently experienced a slight drop in its poverty rate for the first time in a decade, it continues to be the poorest large city in the United States. Providing better resources for minority firms to contract with the city needs should join the list of the city’s poverty-reducing priorities. It will provide low-income families with jobs and keep more city dollars in our neighborhoods.

A little more guidance and leeway upfront could have significant long term effects for those who often have fewer opportunities than most to begin with.

Malik Majeed is the president, CEO, and general counsel of PRWT Services, Inc., the largest minority-owned company in Philadelphia.

PRWT Celebrated as One of the Country’s Largest Black Businesses

By Malik Majeed, President, CEO & General Counsel

PRWT is proud to yet again have made Black Enterprise’s list of the country’s 100 largest black businesses.

We have provided consistent business excellence for more than three decades, and lists like these recognize that.  Along with making our clients, employees and communities a priority, we strive to be a model to other black businesses to show that success is attainable, so we take this recognition from Black Enterprise seriously.

We know there are still too few businesses with majority African American ownership.  We try to do our part to change that by both setting an example for other businesses, and putting our money where our mouth is, encouraging and hiring other highly qualified Black-owned firms as subcontractors.  In addition, we engage in discussions at the city and state level around diversity numbers and mentor black students so they see examples in front of them of people who look like them in management positions and running an organization.

It is imperative that we continue to have discussions around this topic, and make sure we are doing everything we can to lift up other minority businesses.

Thank you, Black Enterprise, for celebrating the success of the country’s 100 largest black businesses, and adding an important element to the discussion around minority representation.

PRWT Mentoring MLK High School Students

As part of longstanding commitment to the community, PRWT has completed the third year of a four-year mentoring program working with students throughout their scholastic career at Martin Luther King High School, one of the city’s more challenged schools.

A team of eight PRWT managers began working with a group of 9th graders during the 2016-17 school year at MLK. Those students have just finished their junior year of high school, and PRWT has been with them throughout their high school journey. The company leadership wanted to follow the same group of students through the four-year experience.

“The agenda we bring to the students varies,” said PRWT’s Director of Philadelphia operations, Shirlene White. “We go as a group once a month for 3-4 months out of the school year. We bring subjects designed to guide these students and help prepare them for solid futures. They are active participants in the sessions. We also offer ourselves up for guidance. We have students who reach out to us for counseling. ”

For their junior year, PRWT’s topics were focused on post-high school prep readiness and the process for entering college as well as financial intelligence.  Topics included making an informed choice among college, military service or in-demand jobs they could consider right after high school like plumbing, electrical, and carpentry. The PRWT team went over how to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form and other financial basics.

“We cautioned them about the credit card invitations they’ll soon be receiving before they even have a job and how you have to pay back student loans,” White said. “We told them it’s OK if they haven’t made decisions about what direction they plan to go. We even talked about a gap year that some individuals take. We also performed mock interviews with the students and gave them critiques, as well as reviewed the importance of social media in today’s times when you are applying to colleges.”

The 25 students in the PRWT group are in MLK’s honors program.

“We are invested in these students’ growth, and we have seen a lot of growth. We have met some dynamite young people,” White commented.

The project has complete support from management, starting with CEO Malik Majeed.

“This project is very dear to our hearts,” Majeed said. “We chose MLK because we wanted to make an impact. We are a minority-owned company and we think about diversity all the time. King is considered a high risk high school. We picked it because we know how important it is for these students to see examples in front of them of people who look like them in management positions and running an organization.”

After their 10th grade year, two of the students worked for the company in a summer jobs program last year.

“We had taught in 10th grade the importance of networking, connecting and building relationships. We then gave them an option whereby they could work through the city’s summer jobs program in which we would pay the salary or work directly for us and get paid considerably more,” White noted.

PRWT has two more MLK students coming to work for the company this summer. They will work in back-end services in the lockbox department, which is very similar to PRWT’s back-end banking.

The PRWT team will complete the four-year cycle next school year. CEO Majeed has approved a plan for the students who are moving onto college or trade school to receive a stipend to be used toward tuition.