This past summer Governor Jon Corzine studied the statistics and didn’t like what he saw. Last year, New Jersey contracted with private businesses for over $2 billion in goods and services. But while minorities and women own 20 and 28 percent respectively of the state’s businesses, they were walking away with only 3 percent of those contracted jobs and just 2 percent of the total $2 billion. The inequity was clear.
Corzine sought to repair this imbalance swiftly, yet within the constraints of New Jersey’s ever-tightening budget. In September the governor signed Executive Order 34, establishing the division of minority and women business development. The governor’s order set up a 13-person council of appointees to annually monitor progress in procurement statistics. But the real work and hope of this newly created division would fall on its director and whatever small staff she could muster. By November, Governor Corzine had found his Director of Minority and Women Business Development in Francis E. Blanco.
Blanco came to her new office with a history of broadbrush public service jobs. When she received her call from the governor, Blanco was serving as director of Trenton’s Department of Recreation, Natural Resources, and Culture. Given this rather boundless title and a $6.5 million budget, Blanco and her 100 employees were challenged to make the city of Trenton a better place in which to live. Her response to this challenge, for six years, earned praise.
Samuel Frisby, hired and mentored by Blanco, is now the acting director of the department. Closeup, he witnessed the synergy between his former boss and Mayor Douglas Palmer. “Both of them were visionary,” he says, “and each had a new model for this city.” He recalls Blanco’s characteristic intense focus which helped bring about SCOOP (a city-wide set of enrichment programs for youth) three years ago. This award-winning cache of over 120 connected programs provided supervised events and inter-ward transportation.
“Without meaning to sound overly idealistic, I actually see helping the youth gain personal growth and new skills as a noble cause,” said Blanco. Such items as the cleanup of Duck Island, improvement of the Assunpink Creek area, and the redesigning of the urban Stacy Park also shone on her resume.
“I got my public service side and the urge to work politically from my father,” says Blanco. A native of the Dominican Republic, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Santo Domingo’s Universidad Autonoma. By l991 she had emigrated to Manhattan and completed a master’s degree in health and human services.
Soon she became executive deputy director of PROCEED Inc., a longtime Latino community health and development agency. She then served as executive director for the Mercer County Hispanic Association (MECHA) in Trenton, working to get Latinos a fair share of the housing, education and other resources.
Having barely completed her first 60 days in her new post, director Blanco has already carved out her division’s niche and garnered some clout to make changes. In politics, as in real estate, location is prime. Currently set in the State House, Blanco’s small division joins the nine members of the even more recently empowered Office of Economic Growth.
The OEG was formed in January, 2006, to improve the state’s job and business environments. Its purpose: To enhance the infrastructure in preparation for growth, while fostering minority and women enterprises. This charter not only dovetails with the MWBDC, but it gives Blanco a hotline to the governor. As OEG Chief Gary Rose maintains a cabinet level position, he carries her words directly and frequently to Corzine.
“This is not any huge staffed organization,” says Blanco. She reports to Monique King-Viehland, the OEG senior director who is officially in charge of small, women, and minority business programs. King-Viehland terms her six-week partnership with Blanco as “just fabulous.” A native of Trenton, King-Viehland has been a small business owner, founding E-square Consulting, offering services to real estate developers. Prior to joining the Office of Economic Growth, she put her housing and planning master’s degree to work for a private development firm in Pittsburgh.
“Francis (Blanco) so obviously is sincerely dedicated to this cause,” says King-Viehland. “At this startup and transition time, you need someone out front who is genuine and as energetic as she is.”
Both women have expressed the rather lofty goal of “changing the way New Jersey does business.” This may not be exactly the motto every Caucasian male business owner is waiting to hear. The very formation of an agency targeted at giving a leg up to minority and women business enterprises, for many, smacks of government yet again meddling in free competition. But Blanco adamantly insists that she has not come to deliver quotas or set aside favors for any group.
Instead, Blanco plans to, as she puts it, “streamline the procurement process and enhance publicity so all small and midsize businesses will benefit, regardless of who owns them.” One of the legendary hurdles for the smaller firm seeking to compete for a New Jersey (or any other governmental) bid is the inch-thick volume of forms requiring often at least one employee’s total attention for a week. Blanco has plowed through this sheaf and taken her scissors to the certification process.
“Attached to almost every bid is 10 pages of certification forms,” she says. “If you are, for example, a green manufacturer, you must prove this diligently to some agency on every bid you make. This is a total waste of everyone’s time.” Blanco’s concept is to get government out of the certification business, by turning the task over to professional organizations who already certify their members annually and very critically. This way the public maintains quality protection on its jobs and the small business person gets her paperwork burden lightened.
Another aspect of Blanco’s efficiency and open access plan is the developing of a centralized procurement system. Using the current New Jersey Business portal “Taking Care of Business” at www.state.nj.us/njbusiness, one can find all the bid opportunities available, one department at a time. Blanco and King-Viehland are already working to transform this into a one-stop governmental bid shopping center that will include all the departmental and agency bids, plus bids from schools and government-funded authorities on a single site.
“Even though we have the technology, this is no overnight job,” says Blanco, “Yet the increased ease of information access will provide the same opportunities for all size firms.”
In the future, Blanco sees the business portal providing, not just help wanted information, but a skills marketplace. Any company registered with the state would advertise the kind of goods and services it offers and be individually notified by E-mail when a job of his description goes out for bid. That such a system is already available for large contractors tips the scales against smaller entrepreneurs.
Hopefully, such a skills depository could lead to effective partnering and thus offer private growth and public savings. For instance, the Division of Minority and Women Owned Business could develop joint ventures that would provide an economy of scale. Smaller firms could unite for a larger job and a large firm, unable to economically perform part of a bid, might find an effective subcontractor through Blanco’s office.
While she was hired to help correct the state’s procurement inequities, Blanco is not limiting her division’s role strictly to government. “Women and minority businesses are out there and definitely ready to go, if they can be given some guidance,” she says. “At the same time, we do not mean to conflict with the many good resources already available, such as the Small Business Development Center www.njsbdc.com) and the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners www.njawbo.org.) We are hoping to combine and add our resources to theirs.”
Red tape phobia has caused thousands of firms to lose millions of contract dollars. The new Office of Economic Growth along with the Minority and Women Business Development Division are hoping to cure both the symptoms and the fear itself.
Blanco has no illusions about balancing the actual dollar amounts to the percentages of minority and women owned enterprises. Governments love to build things and they hire big construction companies to erect them. And these companies, she admits, are, at this point, typically run by men. She does not so much see major deliberate discrimination in the procurement process, as an adherence to tradition.
However, exclusion has never been the way to develop growth. By opening access to information and bids for any new group, everyone gets a better chance. Blanco’s plans are designed to raise the whole playing field, rather than give anyone a leg up. And that’s the sort of action that is definitely affirmative.
NJ Division of Minority and Women Business Development, Box 001, Trenton 08625-0001; 609-777-259. Francis E. Blanco, director.