President Joe Biden’s recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure act offers Philadelphia a series of once-in-a-generation opportunities. Federal funds approved to flow toward critical needs — such as replacing deteriorating lead pipes, allowing SEPTA to build a world-class transit network, and building a more resilient energy framework — will enable projects that would otherwise languish. The package also offers our region something that is not explicitly written in the legislation: the chance to lift and grow entrepreneurship within communities of color.
Entrepreneurship can be a vehicle to provide historically disinvested communities a chance to unlock their own economic potential. In addition to offering job opportunities, entrepreneurship can offer opportunities for the creation of long-term wealth that can stay within communities and pass down through generations. Philadelphia, in comparison to other large cities, has low minority entrepreneurship rates. The infrastructure package offers the chance to change that trajectory and pair aspirations with substantial opportunity.
In my five years working as the general manager of the Reading Terminal Market, we created pathways for budding entrepreneurs that exponentially grew the number of minority-owned businesses at the historic institution. Many of these businesses came through a low-risk, low barrier-to-entry program I created called the Market Day Cart Bazaar. While the scale does not compare to the opportunities offered by the Infrastructure Act, I believe the principles I invoked in making that program successful can be used now as we plan to make use of the federal grant dollars. These principles include:
1) Proactively identify prospects
Successful sports franchises build their success, not by waiting for talent to just come to them, but by aggressively identifying prospects. The analogy applies towards economic inclusion. At Reading Terminal, I formed partnerships with organizations such as The Enterprise Center to help grow a class of food-service entrepreneurs, many of whom reflected neighborhoods historically unrepresented in the Market’s merchant profile. We know the kinds of firms that will be necessary to put the Infrastructure Act’s funds to work. City leaders should work now, through the local African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Equality Chambers to create lists of qualified, minority-owned firms that can participate in these opportunities when the doors open.
2) Eliminate procedural obstacles
I recently met a Black business owner in West Philadelphia who, despite building a successful business, could not complete the process for Minority Business Enterprise certification because he simply did not have the personnel time to dedicate to it. This is not an uncommon story. Government at all levels should determine which process requirements can stand in the way of small, minority-owned business participation in the Infrastructure Act’s various funding categories and simplify those requirements. Process should not stand in the way of economic opportunity. Participation in the Market Cart Bazaar involved only a one-page application and a three-page lease with flexible start and end dates. Small business owners place a tremendous premium on time. If we are serious about inclusion, we must recognize that.
3) Mitigate financial risks
Small businesses simply do not often have the balance sheets to comply with government-funded contract requirements. For example, public works contracts often include the obligation to pay for a surety bond – an expense that can put the contract out of reach altogether. At the Market, we mitigated entrepreneurial risk by not requiring the small business to commit to a long-term lease, with a significant upfront space buildout. They were provided with a cart which could house their equipment and product and, if the concept failed, they could close shop without losing their shirt. The city’s economic development infrastructure should collaborate and develop financial tools now that can ensure small businesses will be able to participate when contract opportunities are made available.
The Biden Infrastructure package truly offers a historic opportunity to lift communities historically left behind in our region’s economy. Let’s fix our rails, roads, and pipes but also use this opportunity to put communities of color on a path towards long-term economic mobility.
Anuj Gupta is Chief of Staff to Congressman Dwight Evans and previously served as General Manager of the Reading Terminal Market.
Subscribe to PlanPhilly