Opening up new avenues for small businesses and new doors for those who feel shut out were the dual goals for a local and state-run workshop held last week in Pensacola.
Sponsored by the City of Pensacola, Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce and the Office of Supplier Diversity in Tallahassee, the Exchange drew more than 140 attendees from 14 counties in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. The Floridians represented Escambia, Okaloosa and Leon counties.
“The Pensacola diversity exchange is really an opportunity for the Office of Supplier Diversity to get together in local communities and areas,” says Brian Wyer, president of the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce. “And work with businesses to understand better ways that they can do business with local, county, [and] agencies and get business done for those minority businesses.”
The Exchange was held at Corinne Jones Resource Center, and featured panel discussions, a small business spotlight, networking, and one-on-one interviews.
“We had 59 different state and local [representatives] there; over 75 small businesses were a part of this,” Wyer said. “People came in from Miami, from Atlanta – so it wasn’t just for our local area. It was for anyone around the state that knew of this event and wanted to be part of it.”
One of the built-in obstacles for minority-owned small businesses is what Wyer calls “a lack of generational knowledge.”
“A lot of minority businesses, this is their first time being involved in business; they don’t have the experience of maybe having family members or having mentors in place to help get those skills to get them through the challenges that they have,” Wyer said. “They have the passion; they have the excitement, they have the grit to do the work, but not the experience and mentoring to make it happen.”
One of the main speakers was Baptist Health Care CEO Mark Faulkner, along with Innisfree Hotels and the University of West Florida. Leading off the panel discussions were experts in state and local governments; panel number two featured experts from the Small Business Development Center, Small Business Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Air Force.
“Oftentimes when you greet somebody at a level that’s just starting out or entry level,” said Wyer. “These were the leaders of those entire departments that were in control of those areas to provide that high-level answer for you, and then provide contacts for you to reach out to resolve issues in those areas.”
One reviewer commented that participating in the workshop opened up opportunities they didn’t know existed. Wyer says that is the bottom line, and that other attendees were equally surprised.
“It’s so revealing when you find out new information,” Wyer said. “The fact that if you work for the county and you’re a barber, you can get a contract to cut hair at the jail. If you’re an auctioneer, they have needs for auctioneers in the county. You can find all your different ways to do business – there’s somebody out there that needs those services. And this helps connect those two pieces together.”
One key to getting out the word – or receiving it – is networking. The workshop provided some lessons on letting everyone know you’re out there and vice versa.
“I made numerous jokes throughout the day that when I saw people network, business cards were flying in the air; there were smiles going on, handshakes, so it was really nice to see the networking take place,” said Wyer. “That’s the best way I can tell businesses to go out and find out what’s happening; what your competition is doing; what your mentors are doing. People are more than happy to share their stories to help you out along the way.”
The excitement this year surpassed that from last year’s event, says Wyer. Case in point, this year’s first appearance by officials from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
“The Her Foundation (which helps female veterans) came and visited them during the 101 Exchange, and they made an agreement where they’re going to possibly throw out the first pitch for a baseball game, and sponsor them for a night and possibly even sing the National Anthem,” Wyer said. “People left the room just thrilled, and even at the end of it they wanted to stay around a bit longer and talk outside and spend time meeting other people; and just being fired up about what they can do in the future.”
Looking ahead to next year’s session, one goal is getting more businesses to the event, especially those on the grassroots level that haven’t attended before. Wyer says when working with the various groups, he learns new things on a daily basis.
“Mark Faulkner did a wonderful job of explaining Baptist Hospital’s huge project of $600 million, what the impact is going be on our community,” said Wyer. “How he’s working with different groups to align with getting these businesses locally to work with that. It’s just a wonderful time to hear information that’s new and exciting, and being able to share that with others.”
One of Brian Wyer’s goals for the 2021 workshop is to have at least 200 attendees. And if this year’s participants take away just one thing, he hopes they realize there are people behind the processes.
“You can go online and pull the information up, you can fill forms out,” said Wyer. “But I really saw the fact that people were there behind it. They say ‘If you have a problem, if you have an issue, contact me; here’s my card, here’s my cell number.’ Everything isn’t set in stone; some things you can really work with by having networking in place, and building those great relationships.”
Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber will conduct a number of smaller workshops later this year called “How Do You Work with Your Local Government?” with the city of Pensacola; Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, and the Escambia School District, among others.