Take a walk down any street in Springfield and you're likely to find a fair amount of businesses owned by historically-excluded groups. These businesses, including restaurants, grocery stores, salons, cafes and the like are all around town, but few of them are registered as Minority-Owned-Enterprises.
There are more than four million certified Minority Business Enterprises in the United States, and 26,000 of them are in Missouri, according to the Minority Business Development Agency.
A 2010 Inc.com article defined MBEs as businesses owned by those who are “socially and economically disadvantaged” by racial and ethnic prejudices.
When a business owner wants to be registered as an MBE, it’s usually because this recognition makes their company eligible for federal contracts. As explained by the Atlanta-based financial tech company Kabbage, the United States government has goals for working with and purchasing from MBEs, so it’s clear that registering as such can have benefits.
Despite the advantages, a Feb. 3 article in the Springfield Business Journal pointed out there are only nine state-registered MBEs in Springfield. SBJ writer Eric Olsen attributes this to a fear associated with labels.
Business owner Terry Edwards expressed his concerns regarding the use of labels for MBEs in Olsen’s article.
“People use that against you: ‘Oh, you got that loan because you’re a minority.’ Or, ‘You got that job because you’re a minority,’” Edwards told SBJ.
By the end of the article, Olsen advocates for ripping the labels off minority-owned businesses, but Springfield business owner Francine Pratt, one of the nine MBE-certified business owners in town, doesn’t view the certification as a label at all.
“It’s definitely not a label,” she said, referring to her business, Pratt Consultants, LLC. “At some point, you have to look at the historical policies that kept women, people with disabilities, veterans and all these different groups from being able to equally be at the table.”
Pratt looks at the MBE registration as a way to bring equality back into the picture after a history of inequality. She read Olsen’s article and disagrees with Edwards.
“To me it’s not a label,” she said. “It’s an opportunity. Understanding that I am a small business, understanding that I am a minority-owned business — it gives me an opportunity to get to the table.”
She sees an MBE certification as providing her with opportunities that she wouldn’t normally get, explaining it’s like receiving “extra points” for potential contracts.
These extra points can make all the difference, especially since the MBDA reported in December that minority businesses are growing at a faster rate than U.S. businesses as a whole.
Pratt’s business has benefited considerably in the more than five years since she registered as an MBE.
“If I took all of the business that is sent my way by being registered as a minority-owned business, I couldn’t handle it all,” Pratt said. “I get two or three requests a month ever since I became registered.”
Samuel Knox, executive director of Minorities in Business for Springfield, explained that the MBE program exists in order “to make state contracts, opportunities and benefits available to economically disadvantaged businesses without discrimiation based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age or ancestry.”
MIB was established 11 years ago to advance minority business development and help historically excluded groups thrive through entrepreneurship, according to a United News Online article about Knox and MIB.
Knox stressed that networking opportunities, exposure for businesses, mentorship with other MBEs, education and training opportunities are all central benefits the MBE program offers.
He said there are several reasons why so few minority-owned businesses in Springfield and across Southwest Missouri seek out the certification. The following are the biggest reasons why a business might not want to register as an MBE, according to Knox:
• Southwest Missouri demographics
• Some do not know about the certification
• Some have a distorted understanding of what the certification is and why it was created
• Some simply feel they don’t need it
• Some don’t want to go through the certification application process
• Some are not eligible for the certification
“Regardless of what people may have heard, the MBE certification is viewed as a very credible and positive way to market your products or services to the government and big business,” Knox said.
For Pratt, her business’ certification is invaluable. She considers it a part of a greater recognition of America’s history, citing the abolitionist and suffrage movements as acts “to make things more equal, understanding that they weren’t initially.”
“Being a minority-owned business, I appreciate the opportunity to at least get to the table,” she said.
But she said being minority-owned isn’t enough in itself.
“You have to have a commodity that somebody wants to purchase first, regardless of whether you’re a minority business or not,” she said. “I cannot stress it enough that nobody should be given anything. (Entrepreneurs) need to have the experience, skill set and credentials so that they are equally at the table.”
Pratt has a clear perspective for how MBEs can connect to the college crowd, particularly at Missouri State.
She used to be the executive director for multicultural programs. Through that position, she spent a lot of time meeting with students from different backgrounds, most of which were African American. She found out what her students wanted to do for their careers. She said there is a strong connection between entrepreneurial students and opportunities afforded by MBE certification.
Pratt said she also brought her business background into the classroom when she taught Introduction to African American Studies at MSU.
“You need to understand your history,” she would tell her students. “But you also need to understand your own individual background. You need to understand how to operate and succeed in the world, knowing the history and bringing it into today so that you all can work together no matter what environment you’re in.”