By Abdel Jimenez Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Abdel Jimenez reports, "For years, city and local governments around the country have had proactive programs that encourage minority- and women-owned businesses to compete for public contracts. LGBT companies have not consistently been included in those programs, but that's starting to change."
When Jackie Richter formed her construction company in 2011, there were few resources to turn to as an LGBT business owner.
Richter, a transgender woman who co-owns Byron-based Heels and Hardhats Contracting with her wife Cyndi Richter, found early work as a subcontractor for a larger construction company. But after looking for city procurement programs that welcomed businesses like hers, she realized she was out of luck.
"All we ask is for a seat at the table," Richter said. "Give us a chance."
For years, city and local governments around the country have had proactive programs that encourage minority- and women-owned businesses to compete for public contracts. LGBT companies have not consistently been included in those programs, but that's starting to change.
Political leaders in Chicago and Cook County are in early discussions about changing their procurement policies to allow LGBT businesses in their supplier diversity programs.
If successful, those local efforts would join a growing number of cities, including Nashville, Tenn.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Jersey City, N.J., that have changed their supplier programs within the last year to include LGBT vendors. Supporters argue that extending diversity programs will create economic opportunity for the LGBT community and foster an inclusive environment.
Chicago's procurement office has been working with the national and local LGBT chambers of commerce to figure out a way to include LGBT-owned businesses, said Cathy Kwiatkowski, a spokeswoman for the Department of Procurement Services.
The timing may be ripe for the change as LGBT political leaders such as Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Commissioner Kevin Morrison and water district Commissioner Marcelino Garcia take office.
Morrison said including LGBT businesses "is a subject that we have been discussing and working on" in Cook County government.
And at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, a public water sanitation and treatment agency, Garcia said contracting is an issue he's been working on as well.
Elected just seven months ago, Garcia said it may take time to convince other commissioners to include more diverse businesses, but he is hopeful.
"I don't know if the administration or the board is committed to doing that," Garcia said. "I have a long road to change that code."
In recent years, corporations have worked to incorporate LGBT businesses into their supply chains as part of social responsibility strategies, and governments are starting to follow suit.
"We are just beginning to take off in the public sector," said Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
"(Governments) are recognizing anything corporations do, and they see that diversity is good for business," Lovitz said. "More diversity means more competition and more competition means more lower bid prices (from suppliers)."
Diversity supplier programs that include LGBT vendors take many forms. California's Public Utilities Commission, for example, requires the utility companies it regulates to hire LGBT vendors, Lovitz said. The 2014 mandate also requires companies to set aside about 15 percent of contracts for minority-owned businesses and about 5 percent for women-owned businesses. The California commission doesn't establish a goal for LGBT businesses yet, but including them was more than enough to see a spike in LGBT business owners to get a certification, Lovitz added.
This isn't the first fight to change the policy in Chicago, said Jerome Holston, director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois. The organization has been pushing the city to include LGBT firms in its supplier diversity programs for years, but this time around Holston said he believes something can get done.
"We have a considerable number of out LGBT officials. Now we have Mayor Lightfoot," Holston said. "She's really focusing big on businesses and neighborhoods. I think that focus that she has really allows LGBT businesses to get better involved and exposed."
One challenge LGBT supplier diversity programs face is figuring out who will certify eligible businesses. Morrison, the Cook County commissioner, said there is already one organization that focuses on that.
"What I think would be the best route is doing the certification through the national chamber, which is known to have a rigorous process," Morrison said.
Lovitz said other cities that have extended their supplier diversity programs have turned to the national LGBT chamber to certify businesses as lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender owned.
Business owners must show that a majority of the company is owned, operated, controlled or managed by one or more LGBT people. More than 1,200 companies have been certified through this process nationwide, Lovitz said. Chicago has 43 businesses that have been certified by the national LGBT chamber.
The chamber's certification program, which was in place long before local governments started expanding their supplier programs, started as a way to track the overall impact LGBT companies had on the economy, Lovitz said.
"We are a community that isn't tracked by the federal government," he said. "Our economic data is something we have learned from certifying companies. And it really colors in the picture of just how important LGBT businesses are to the national economy."
Local business owners say they see value in obtaining a certification. Billy Stevenson, one of three co-founders of iCandee, a Chicago-based custom apparel merchant, applied to get the company certified in October 2011 as a way to gain credibility.
"The LGBT business certification puts a business and economic face on a social movement," Stevenson said.
The certification process also helped Richter's construction company land contracts.
"We grew. We went from doing $100,000 a year and now we are targeted for $10 million this year," Richter said.
Richter said expanding the procurement programs at local governments might not have a big impact on established businesses like hers, but she said it is still important for the government to help LGBT entrepreneurs.
According to records from the city procurement office, Chicago awarded about $450 million worth of contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses last year.
Stevenson, who served as a board member for the local LGBT chamber for seven years, said the fight to recognize businesses like his isn't new. He's tried multiple times to get the city to change its policy toward LGBT firms.
"It ultimately comes down to paperwork," Stevenson said. "And no one is forcing them to do it."
He added, "Nothing happens quickly in the city of Chicago when it comes to procurement."
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