When the San Francisco 49ers were building Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Walter Wilson noticed something.
“They didn’t have a single Black contractor, not even sweeping the floors, which was a minority-owned business,” said Wilson, a partner with the San Jose-based firm Minority Business Consortium (MBC) .
MBC worked with the city and suggested the 49ers rebid contracts with diversity in mind, said Reginald Swilley, another partner with the firm.
One of the first contracts they procured was for Metro Furnishings, a Black-owned business. Another was for the scoreboard, provided by a Latina-owned business. Contracts were also secured for janitorial, parking, security, concession and food trucks.
“Between small businesses, electrical and DBEs (economically disadvantaged small businesses) previously not engaged in the process, we brought in almost $100 million in 49ers stadium contracts,” Wilson said. “They’re really leaning in and it’s a major priority for them.”
MBC provides access for minority-owned small businesses to high-end construction projects, something these companies otherwise wouldn’t have.
“It’s a deliberate ask, a deliberate reach into the community to try to build a strong infrastructure for these businesses that have been left out,” Swilley said. “We need to have everyone at the table. It’s good for the local economy.”
The consortium is fighting an uphill battle for minority-owned small businesses which continue to struggle with getting funding and receiving contracts.
“Access to funding is a bad stroke on American economic justice. Women and minorities don’t have the same access to capital,” Swilley said. “When you look at our skyline in the whole Bay Area, how many of these buildings were built by Black companies or Hispanic or Vietnamese companies? That’s the mentality that has to be shifted and that’s the work that we’re doing.”
MBC measures its success not only monetarily and by the number of contracts the company procures, but also in how they change corporate culture, the partners say.
“I advocate for people,” Swilley said. “We say, ‘This is good for your community. It’s good for your business. It’s good for your brand.’”
Wilson, a lifelong civil rights advocate, met Swilley through the NAACP. They were both working to bring diversity to transit companies— Wilson was pushing BART and Swilley was writing a report on California High-Speed Rail for the California Black Chamber — when they came together to create MBC in 2010.
To help reach out to diverse communities, they employ staff who speak Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish.
“We hire people from those communities who understand the culture,” Swilley said. “It’s saying there’s a place for you. This is a real invitation.”
Jim Mercurio, executive vice president and general manager of Levi’s Stadium, said franchises such as the 49ers or leagues like the NFL require experience in their contractors, but he looks for ways to empower minority-owned small businesses.
Although he had to be a “good steward for the business side,” Mercurio required the larger firms they contracted with to provide opportunities for businesses from overlooked communities.
Mercurio said the 49ers have always cared about inclusion. At Candlestick Park, they hired local at-risk youth to work in concessions, security and parking.
“We took it a step further in Santa Clara with how we could involve minority-owned businesses and started building that into our contracts,” Mercurio said.
Mercurio said the majority of the businesses MBC recommended “have been on point” and MBC was quick to supply substitutes when they weren’t.
“You get better when you have a full representation of who you are and who your community is,” Mercurio said. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done with them and of the folks who got an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Wilson said BART coming to San Jose was part of the impetus for MBC coming together. Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) 10-year, almost $6.5 billion BART project will also be the high point of MBC’s accomplishments.
“We spent the last 10 years to be in the position we’re in right now,” Wilson said, “so we can really begin to impact businesses with the BART multi-billion-dollar project. All the work we’ve done was to open that door.”
John Wesley White, chief procurement officer at VTA, said increased minority participation was also important to CEO Nuria Fernandez.
“The goal of VTA … is to maximize spending as much money locally as possible,” White said. “We also want to maximize the diversity of the contractors and their staff on these projects and … reflect the rich diversity you see in the population of Santa Clara County, which we serve.”
In addition to setting aside $150,000 in projects only small businesses can bid on, White said VTA arranged for the small businesses to be paid in full within 15 days of invoicing to accelerate their cash flow.
VTA provides the insurance needed for the BART project, which would otherwise be an enormous expense and barrier for small contractors, especially as the project involves a five-mile underground tunnel.
VTA is also creating a small business mentorship protégé program, requiring larger contracted companies to work with the small minority-owned businesses.
“Bringing MBC to the table, a local company with deep roots in the community, worked out as a good partnership,” White said. “We have the budget. We have the projects. MBC has the contacts to do effective outreach in a variety of minority communities. We’re going to make a really effective team as we go forward and look for new ways to embrace the community and tear down barriers.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].