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Councilmember shares supplier diversity concerns

Mark Parker

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As an African American woman, small business owner and someone proud of her time spent “in the trenches” advocating for the community, City Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders offers a unique and critical perspective on St. Petersburg's supplier diversity program. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

St. Petersburg City Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders believes local officials have a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to create a supplier diversity program that could serve as a national model.

However, despite years of planning and discussion, she also worries that the initiative won’t reach the residents who need it the most.

Figg-Sanders commends administrative efforts to reduce disparities in the number of city contracts awarded to women and minority-owned businesses, compared to their counterparts. She also believes those intimidated by longstanding processes could miss out on opportunities.

“If you’re looking to make a difference, and you’re looking to get different results, then you can’t use the same steps to get there,” Figgs-Sanders said. “What is common about trying to get those that need help the most at that comfort level where they understand this program is here for everybody?”

As an African American woman, small business owner and someone proud of her time spent “in the trenches” advocating for the community, Figgs-Sanders offers a unique and critical perspective on the recently created Office of Supplier Diversity (OSD).

The council’s vice chair and her colleagues heard a fourth update on a key recommendation from the city’s racial disparity study during a March 30 Committee of the Whole meeting. Local leaders continue working on an ordinance establishing the Women and Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE) Program.

Figgs-Sanders noted the city commissioned the disparity study from 2014 to 2018.

“Number one, we’re in 2023,” she said. “We’ve had a pandemic, and you and I both know the entrepreneurship world and business worlds have changed a whole lot.”

She said city officials could utilize the study’s results but must also account for St. Pete’s rapidly changing environment. While Figgs-Sanders called including the procurement department in the program’s framework “wonderful,” she also questions if stakeholders – the St. Pete Greenhouse, mayor’s office and others – will continue working in silos.

Before the most recent update, Figgs-Sanders asked program officials for an overall mission statement. The last slide of the March 30 presentation relayed that “our mission is to promote fair and equal business opportunities through the intentional implementation of diversity programs to ensure equity in contracts and procurement for all members of our community who want to do business with the City of St. Petersburg.”

That did not alleviate her concerns.

“You would think if you’re doing a presentation on an overall culture change, the mission would have been the first statement,” Figgs-Sanders said. “But that wasn’t the case.”

While some might find it trivial, her worries begin with the OSD’s name. She noted that formal identifiers, like “council member” or “mayor’s office,” carry more weight than standardized terms.

She believes the Office of Supplier Diversity moniker is unnecessarily vague and would like the name to feature “inclusion” or “opportunity.” Most of all, Figgs-Sanders believes those already apprehensive will continue to feel unwelcome if it sounds like just another city department.

“The people that you’re trying to help, they’re not going to latch on to that immediately,” she said.

Mayor Ken Welch (center) speaks with attendees at a Grand Prix Fast Track minority and small business owner event March 4. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

Outreach and education are other concerns. Figgs-Sanders explained that the people who need the program the most typically don’t watch St. Pete TV or keep tabs on City Hall. She said officials could not rely on standardized methods if they intend to reach people who distrust local government.

She added that using terms like “standard” and “common” during presentations tells her that city administrators are not viewing the initiative holistically.

The program is not just about doing business with St. Pete but preparing people for success, said Figgs-Sanders. That does not mean “handholding,” but it does include providing women and minority mentors who have shared lived experiences and know what it takes to bootstrap a company. “I don’t want us to miss the mark,” Figgs-Sanders added.

She credited Greenhouse officials for partnering with other community organizations to provide entrepreneurship training, including the Saturday Morning Shoppe’s Vendor Academy. She said those collaborations aid recruitment and enable new small business owners to learn from others’ mistakes.

“I want us to be creative,” Figgs-Sanders said. “I want us to be innovative. I want us to be in touch. I want us to be impactful – as the mayor’s pillars state. That’s all I’m asking.”

Getting the program right would have an extensive impact on the community. Figgs-Sanders noted rent costs are “ridiculous,” longtime residents are losing property – generational wealth – to gentrification, and supporting minority and women-owned small businesses would help people who barely survived the pandemic compete with new residents.

In addition to lowering the unemployment rate and other economic impacts, she noted that successfully launching a critical aspect of the disparity study could help restore trust.

“Getting it right would give our residents, our constituents, more hope in a local municipality, into a government that they feel hears them, welcomes them and wants them to be here,” Figgs-Sanders said. “That we really are St. Pete.”

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    April 12, 2023at5:09 pm

    Please use terms that clearly identify the purpose of the this initiative. I am still trying to fully understand the purpose.It seems there is not a complete ‘buy in’ and folk working on the project are not really interested in making it be clear and concise as to the complete purpose.Mission Statement???????What Is It????Maybe you need some of the potential people that will benefit help put it together.

  2. Avatar

    interpreter

    April 11, 2023at7:03 pm

    So the mayor’s biggest ally on council is begging Ken Welch to do his job. This could have been done under Kriseman, althogh Kriseman gets credit for jumpstarting it.
    Looking at the underbelly of procurement policies and implementing change is a mayoral perogative. It is the city’s mission under inclusive policies.
    Wake up, Ken. Do something. Even your biggest council champ is complaining.

  3. Avatar

    steve sullivan

    April 11, 2023at3:20 pm

    She is none of thos things. She understands that helping the least of us, helps us all in eliminating the poverty gap. Expand your thought process and gt rid of the bias

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