News. Events. Ideas. People.
How Columbia University Partners with NYC to Support Local and Diverse Small Business
(avg: 3.80 of 5)
Columbia University provides a leading example of how an anchor institution can make its purchasing dollars more accessible to local small businesses. Working with local construction enterprises strengthens the university's ties with the local West Harlem community. It also expands and diversifies the pool of qualified vendors, which provide speedy, nimble, and reliable service. La-Verna Fountain, Associate Vice President, Construction Business Services and Communications of Columbia University explains how the institution's local purchasing efforts took shape and articulates several key lessons for aspiring anchor institutions.
Public-Private Partnerships: Making Things Work
By: La-Verna Fountain
Sometime in early 2008, the Executive Vice President for Columbia University’s Facilities Department, Joe Ienuso and the Commissioner for New York City’s Small Business Services, Rob Walsh met to discuss the possibility of Columbia University and Small Business Services joining together to address a common challenge. Joe wanted to increase the amount of construction dollars spent with minority, women and locally-owned (MWL) businesses. Commissioner Walsh wanted to increase the amount of city contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses operating in the City.
The challenge facing both the City and Columbia was the fact that they were large, bureaucratic institutions. In the nation’s largest city, too few minority and women owned businesses are equipped to handle the administrative and financial complexities of large institutions to compete with majority-owned construction trade firms.
The answer was to join forces and create a mentorship program unlike any other mentorship program in New York. While several organizations in New York have created mentorship programs for the small, disadvantaged construction trades firm, the programs range in services and training provided. None link the free services of a governmental agency focused solely on helping the small business succeed with the academic rigor of an Ivy League education and the commitment to create bidding opportunities for the participants once all program requirements are met.
As of December 2011, Columbia has spent more than $16 million alone in construction work with mentorship firms. As of June 2010, the City of New York had awarded more than $12 million in contracts to the mentorship firms.
I wasn’t there at the beginning. I joined the initiative part way through the first year. Following are a few of the things that help make the program a success:
Vision and leadership. Joe and Commissioner Walsh’s vision was larger than either of their organizations. For Columbia University, the oldest higher education institution in New York, it was a matter of operating in a manner that not only would enhance Columbia’s reputation but strengthen Columbia’s community relations. Under Joe’s leadership, Columbia increased its MWL business construction spend goal to 35 percent -- one of the highest commitments in New York State. Joe also recognized that by increasing the number of qualified construction trade firms from which Columbia might do business, the value and quality of work would benefit the University. Lastly, he understood that many of the MWL firms would already be committed to our high goal thereby helping to create jobs in the area.
It took Joe and Commissioner Walsh’s vision to start the ball rolling, but once the ball rolls someone has to be there to make sure it stays the course. The person who helps to keep things going must be committed to the vision and committed to doing the daily hard work it takes to run a mentorship program. From answering the multitude of inquiries to reviewing paperwork to counseling the participants, the front line people must be equipped to respond to multiple challenges quickly, proactively and often quietly.
Communicate with stakeholders. As with the vision itself, there is a need to have both an internal and an external communications strategy. Internally you need to communicate the vision in a way that will help create buy-in. On a daily basis, project managers and their supervisors confront the challenge of completing their tasks with as few problems as possible. By adding one more component to their workload, it is vital to create excitement, shared vision and a sense of ownership for everyone involved.
Externally, it is important to not communicate too much too soon. It is far better to exceed expectations than to fall well below them. At the same time, it is important to include leaders who can help make the program a success. In this case, we formed an advisory council to help provide guidance and get the word out to potential candidates for the program. As a result, by the second year of operations, as many as four times the number of applicants were applying than would be accepted into the class. People were beginning to realize it was a serious program with quality results.
Stakeholders in this initiative included local community leaders, various labor union representatives, construction trade firm owners, Columbia personnel and City personnel. To work as effectively as possible with all of the stakeholders, articles were written, meetings were held with leaders in each of the groups, and periodic updates were provided.
Be prepared to make adjustments. We are now in our fourth year of operations. During the academic year for the firms participating in the program, Joe and Commissioner Walsh along with representatives from Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education participate in a “Chat and Chew” event. In an informal atmosphere, the participants and alumni are encouraged to provide an honest critique of their experience participating in the program -- the good, the bad and the ugly. As a result of the feedback, changes are made to the program.
Our goal is their success. Their success will happen when we listen and adjust whenever appropriate.
Be open and honest about expectations. Often people want to join the mentorship program because they think it is an easy way to get a contract. That is not the case with this mentorship program. Throughout the academic year, program managers are listening and watching. While firms are given an opportunity to bid, the firm must meet the same requirements as the larger construction firms. We examine their records and look at their previous work. And, the hard reality is that every construction firm is not right for a large institution. This can be a difficult message for many firms who think they finally found the golden goose that lays the golden egg. There is no golden egg. We have high standards. This is a place where we work, live and play. We must justify every dollar we spend in construction or maintenance as something that will benefit our core mission – education and academic research. And, it is a tough, competitive environment. For every one firm given an opportunity, there are at least 10 others who are trying to get an opportunity to work with us.
Recognition. For the participants, there is a graduation ceremony and reception. We like to highlight their success. For the front line workers, we praise their involvement at meetings. It is important to acknowledge the successes. Every day presents opportunities for improvement, and we often forget how far we’ve come.
We are not done, yet. We want more success. We’ve added more corporate partners to our initiative. We have more improvements to make. Fortunately, we still have the vision, leadership and commitment to move forward. This is truly a public-private partnership that works.
This is an excellent historical perspective and current synopsis of the program.
By Tanya Pope on 02/10/2012
BY Guest Blogger on February 7th, 2012
Trending Topicsworkforce development workforce what works urban revitalization small business shared value nyc manufacturing jobs inner city economic summit industrial ic100 housing food entrepreneur economic development detroit community development clusters cities capital business boston ask the expert anchors
FOR OUR MONTHLY INNER CITY INSIGHTS.
- CEOs for Cities
- SBA's Open for Business
- Opportunity Nation
- Living Cities
- Urban Institute's MetroTrends
- Atlantic Cities
- The Knight Foundation
- The Kresge Foundation
- Core Change Cincy
- Business Civic Leadership Center
- The Urbanophile
- Next City
- City Journal
- Rust Wire