In 1990 Stephanie Burroughs worked on a large-scale rail transportation construction project. She worked within the sector of diversity for vendors, suppliers, and business owners before being promoted as the contract compliance monitor. Her new job became monitoring the railroad sites from the ground.
“This completely changed the trajectory of my life,” she says. “That’s when it all began.”
Now an expert on diversity in organizations, Burroughs helps businesses improve their own hiring processes. On Tuesday, August 20, at noon Burroughs will present “Demystifying the Diversity Certification Alphabet Soup” in partnership with the New Jersey Small Business Development Center. The free webinar is designed to help businesses gain clarity throughout the processes she has witnessed and assisted for over 30 years. Visit www.sbdcnj.com to register.
Burroughs learned about federal minority business programs after becoming a compliance monitor, which entailed helping business people meet the goals and requirements of the Department of Transportation. She met with owners of major construction companies as well as spending time in the field speaking with laborers.
But Burroughs, who earned a bachelor of science in management at Rutgers-Newark in 1984, still thought her passion lay in human resources. She took a break from this job to work HR at the Port Authority. Unexpectedly, a separate position opened up within another department, formerly known as the Office of Business and Job Opportunity.
“I interviewed for it, and I interviewed them as well,” she says. “Being an HR person, you can’t help but doing that. When the manager asked, ‘Do you have questions for me?’ I had 16 questions already prepared on a legal pad.”
That job brought Burroughs back into the world of diversity certifications. At the time Minority Business Enterprise was the latest certification, but as new programs emerged she became experts in them, too.
Burroughs was responsible for knowing and auditing certifications. When the Small Business Race Neutral Program was established, Burroughs was put on a team to implement and certify it. She helped create the application for the Women Business Enterprise Program before auditing them and teaching people how to navigate the process of applying.
“I am the first and only black and female out there on the construction site at Port Authority,” Burroughs says. “That’s a whole other story, what women have to go through.”
She calls this grit and growth.
“When I hear what women are going through in terms of the workplace, we didn’t have all these organizations out there yet,” she added. “In fact, women weren’t out there. I was giving my best, being my best, doing my best, and knocking down barriers for minority businesses to be able to get in the door — particularly African-Americans because that’s who I am in — and to understand the process and to learn how to move and work and acquire contracts in these large projects.”
Burroughs led programs for contractors and minority small businesses in New Jersey and New York and later worked for NJ Transit and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.
“I have so many [clients] coming to me saying that people for years have been telling them to get all of the certifications, and I’m just shocked,” she says. “You are wasting time that you could be working and running your business and getting your contract. You need to be very, very specific about which ones are necessary.”
Burroughs stresses that having a certification isn’t always the end of the story; it matters who certified you, she says. She wants to explain to her audience why the process matters and how to navigate it efficiently. In the webinar, Burroughs will explain the process through relevant online resources.
“That’s what this is all about, and this particular webinar demystifies — taking the mystery out of it — and answering the questions, most importantly,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet. They will avoid making many mistakes and wasting valuable time applying for diversity certifications that are not necessary for their business. The opportunity for small, minority-owned, women owned, veteran owned and service disabled veteran owned, and small business enterprises to contract with government agencies is expanding, but too many of them are not certified or prepared to take advantage of the growing need agencies, corporations, and large businesses or prime contractors have for qualified businesses.”
Her clients and audience are vast, from companies that are doing business with public agencies, government agencies, and corporate and commercial entities from banks and financial institutions to pharmacies. Inventors have come to Burroughs in the past, which presents an even bigger challenge. And everyone’s case is different, she says. “The guidelines or laws they need to follow [present] different nuances.”
Ultimately, certifications are only side of the equation.
“My focus is on getting you contracts, and the certification is a part of that,” she says, adding that this webinar leads up to an in-person workshop through the American Small Business Development Center of Mercer County on Wednesday, September 18, at the College of New Jersey. Clients will be guided through the preparation of documentation and applications for New Jersey’s Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise Certification.
In addition to her expertise on minority certifications and government contracts, Burroughs also works as an inspirational speaker and coach. In November she will be the guest speaker at four-time Olympian Joetta Clark Diggs’ Women’s Empowerment Summit in New Brunswick. “For years, I’d say ‘Get a grip and grow some grit,’” Burroughs says. “And [Clark Diggs] told me that’s what she wants me to talk about.”
Grit is not only the theme of her talk and of her coaching program; it’s also an acronym for Burroughs: grounded, resilient, intentional, and tenacious. Her speaking engagements, including her online workshops, reflect this mission.
“This all comes from having had my hands in the pot, stirring the pot, doing the work,” she says. “I’m able to explain to them having been on the other side of actually auditing. I know whether or not they’re going to meet the criteria. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want them wasting their time.”