Evan Urbania, who leads the Center City digital marketing firm ChatterBlast, understands why Philadelphia has long devoted a share of public contracts to companies owned by minorities: It helps close the opportunity gap for groups that haven’t historically had a fair shot at city work.
But Urbania, who is gay, said it is about time the city make room in that category for businesses operated by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“We don’t expect this to be a system that is requiring X-amount of dollars to be spent with the LGBT community,” Urbania said. “We just really want to be next to the other minority and business services — those owned by women, African-Americans and the disabled,” he said. “We want to be in that same class and category.”
A growing number of LGBT-owned businesses in Philadelphia are lobbying the city to do more to ensure that companies from their community have equal access to some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts awarded every year for everything from general construction to technology services.
Moves have been made in California, Massachusetts and Washington state to help LGBT-led companies win public contracts. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has taken some initial steps to bring in more LGBT work. And the Port of Philadelphia now considers LGBT suppliers in the minority business category, to be given an edge in the bidding process.
Philadelphia officials say they are still studying the issue.
“Historically, contracts have gone to those who have the most access to the people who make the decisions,” said Philly-based Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
“And all we’re trying to do is make sure those great LGBT enterprises in Philadelphia have a seat at the table to say, ‘I’m here, and I’m ready to do business.”
But first, a ‘disparity study’
Many advocates of such a move say, in light of some Trump administration proposals that throw LGBT protections into peril, going the opposite way on the local level carries heightened urgency.
According to the Department of Commerce, about 30 percent of the $991 million in contracts the city awarded in 2016 went to businesses owned by minorities, women or disabled individuals.
City officials hope the percentage will reach 35 percent or higher in coming years, but advocates of expanding the set-aside category to include LGBT enterprises said they are hearing concerns that such a move would take business away from the rest of the group.
“I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by both members of the African-American business community and from members of city government,” said Marc Coleman, who is black and gay and the president of the Tactile Group, a Philadelphia digital-design firm.
If the perception does exist, Lovitz said, it is misguided. He said when minority business owners are given city work, there is a diversity multiplier effect.
“Other diverse communities may think that this is going to take something away from the pie, but LGBT business owners are twice to three times more likely to utilize other minorities in their subcontracting,” he said.
Leaders at a half-dozen companies that were awarded city contracts last year as part of the city’s diverse supplier program did not return requests for comment about whether adding LGBT companies to the group would create fears of less work to go around.
Amber Hikes, who runs the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, said she has not heard this worry from any businesses owned by the groups now in the diverse category.
She said the city is committed to growing opportunities for the gay and lesbian business community, although formally expanding the city’s diverse business category would require launching a study to demonstrate that LGBT companies are being left out.
In fact, city law stipulates that a “disparity study” be completed before a new class is added to the diversity category.
“If you can’t prove that there’s a disadvantage, or a disparity, then it wouldn’t make sense to provide extra benefits,” Hikes said.
Stigmas, barriers remain
To Justin Nelson, who heads the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, having to commission a study to illustrate that there is LGBT discrimination is preposterous.
“The sheer need of talking about a need for a disparity study shows there’s disparity,” Nelson said.
Several business owners interviewed said being open about their sexual orientation has resulted in unambiguous bias.
“People found out that I had a husband and decided not to work with us,” said Coleman of the Tactile Group, who also balks at the study requirement. “There are actual real stigmas and barriers.”
Another issue with the study requirement, Lovitz said, is that forcing businesses to self-identify as disadvantaged “further stigmatizes them.”
“We’re trying to get the city to move away from this old-school model,” he said.
On the state level, Wolf has started tracking LGBT businesses, simplifying the process of how companies bid on public projects and giving contractors incentives to hire more LGBT subcontractors.
Importantly, though, Wolf has not added LGBT-owned businesses to the state’s diverse supplier category – that requires a two-year study, to the tune of $900,000, which was awarded in May.
Backers of more LGBT access to city work say if Philadelphia officials just mirror the preliminary actions of Wolf, that would be a victory — at least for now.
Few details on LGBT companies, economic impact
Hikes agreed with advocates that it’s inexcusable that the city does not track the number of LGBT businesses in Philadelphia. And even if adding LGBT businesses among the ranks of other diverse groups favored for city work may be a far-off prospect, figuring out a way to assess the community’s economic impact is a shorter-term goal.
“Right now, in terms of the city checking off boxes and giving me a list of what the LGBT business are in the city? We have zero. That’s ridiculous. We know that’s not the case,” Hikes said. “So at the bare minimum, we need that data.”
“We need to know who these businesses are,” she said. “What kind of business are they bringing into the city? What are they contributing to the city?”
The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce has certified 50 businesses in Philadelphia as LGBT business enterprises or as being at least 51 percent owned by an LGBT person.
Nelson, the group’s president, said if LGBT companies believe a core part of their character is invisible in a business proposal, some could feel muzzled and walk away from opportunities.
“Nobody leaves their identity at home,” Nelson said. “And if you ask someone else to leave their particular identity at home, they would have a conniption over it.
“A lot of times that keeps people from even wanting to trying to compete.”