Lackluster MWBE rates in New York? There's an app for that.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio signs legislation increasing accountability and access MWBEs last fall.

Lackluster MWBE rates in New York? There's an app for that.

Lackluster MWBE rates in New York? There's an app for that.
March 7, 2017

In New York City, the percentage of government contracts going to firms owned by women or minorities has languished in the single digits. At the state level, strong growth in the share of contracts going to these minority- and women-owned business enterprises, or MWBEs, has slowed in recent years.

So what can be done to spur the MWBE growth that elected officials and advocates alike say they want to achieve?

It turns out there’s an app for that.

Capalino+Company, a lobbying and strategic consulting firm, launched its MWBE Connect NY app earlier this year, which it is billing as a way for such firms to more easily find contracts it qualifies for – and to avoid wasting time on those that aren’t a good fit.

“We were finding that clients internally were not having a clear understanding of what the New York City and state MWBE regulations were, and they needed assistance also with finding MWBEs to assist them with their procurement contracts, so we had created an MWBE directory to help them,” said Tunisha Walker, a Capalino senior vice president. “Then we realized there were MWBEs that were out there who needed assistance with finding contracts as well.”

Walker, who started Capalino’s MWBE consulting group about two years ago, said she had discovered that many firms that had been certified still needed help with networking, applying for requests for proposals, understanding compliance regulations and how to market themselves. Without the time to navigate the process on their own, many firms turn to consultants for assistance – and the new app builds on that.

The launch comes as roughly a quarter of all state contract dollars are going to minority and women-owned business enterprises, or MWBEs. The most recent mark of 25.10 percent is above the previous year’s 23.23 percent rate but just shy of a record-setting 25.12 percent share in 2014.  

In New York City, only 4.8 percent of the $15.3 billion procurement budget went to MWBEs in fiscal year 2016, compared with 5.3 percent the year before, according to an annual report card from the office of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The de Blasio administration uses a different measure based on contracts in industries explicitly covered by a law governing the MWBE program, which puts the city’s contracting rate at 14 percent. The city, which has set a 30 percent participation goal, has been pushing for state legislation that would allow it to expand its MWBE contracting.

Some critics have called on the de Blasio administration to appoint a chief diversity officer, like the state has done, to put more political heft behind the effort. But other challenges are more bureaucratic. For example, sometimes MWBEs respond to bids for contracts that they are not eligible for because the contracts are misclassified.

Safeena Mecklai, an associate vice president at Capalino, recounted the experience of  digital media advertising client that the firm was representing. The client, an MWBE firm called DigitalFlash, had asked for help looking into a potential contract, and Mecklai traveled to pre-proposal conference for the RFP only to learn that it was not a good fit.

“As a small business owner, there’s no way she could have taken the hour or two hours out of her day to go out here and figure out she wasn’t eligible and go back to running her business,” Mecklai said.

But while at the pre-proposal conference, Mecklai happened to sit next to an app developer from Celeritas Digital Solutions who had also discovered that he was not eligible for the RFP. One thing led to another, and the developer partnered with Capalino to develop a mobile app to address the problem.

The app has search and tracking features that aim to better match contractors with bids that fit their qualifications. Each user fills out a profile describing its business using language that goes beyond standard commodity codes, and Capalino each day updates summaries of outstanding RFPs in its own words that match the language in the user profiles.

Capalino launched the app on Jan. 20, with a subscription fee of $50 a month or $600 a year, and has been slowly rolling it out over the past several weeks.

“We’re solving for a really narrow problem, and that is it shouldn’t take so long to find RFPs,” Mecklai said. “You shouldn’t have to search a city database, a state database, go to each of these different pages and search through tons of information that doesn’t apply to you. Instead, we’re limiting your parameters so that on the go you can see what RFPs are released each day.”

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.