How Memphis Helps Minority- and Women-Owned Small Businesses Thrive

This post is part of a series on NLC’s Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship.

Joann Massey

In 2016 and 2017, as part of the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship’s inaugural class, I had the pleasure of working with Mayor Strickland and the city of Memphis. NLC has been fortunate enough to continue collaborating with the mayor ever since, and last May he participated in our State of the Cities (SOTC) report release event.

At the event, I noticed Mayor Strickland was accompanied by a former Memphis fellow, Joann Massey. One year later, I was eager to both catch up on, and share, the progress the former cohort had made since the program’s conclusion. I chatted with Joann about everything from her role as the city’s director of business diversity and compliance to the innovative programs Memphis has launched to advance equity in its economic development framework.

Carlos Delgado: It is always a pleasure reconnecting with you, Joann, and to keep learning about all the progress the mayor and his team are making in Memphis. Before I start asking you questions about business diversity, inclusive entrepreneurship and equity, can you share with our audience a little bit about your professional background and current role?

Joann Massey: Thank you, Carlos, for the opportunity to keep sharing the Memphis story. The mayor and the Memphis EED fellows are so grateful to be part of the EED Fellowship community. It has been a year since we were part of the inaugural cohort and we feel inspired to continue this work. I have been serving as the city of Memphis’ director of business diversity and compliance since February 2016. In this position, my role is to increase the number of minority, women and small business enterprises (MWSBE) certified with the city of Memphis and assist with strengthening the capacity of these companies so that they might better compete for opportunities in city of Memphis government contracting.

In order to do this, we have streamlined the MWSBE certification process by dropping all certification fees and entering reciprocal certification agreements with Shelby County; the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division; and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. Partly as a result of the city’s prodding, the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) also has ramped up efforts for companies to receive development incentives for MWSBE participation.

Prior to working with the city, I served as the lead business development consultant for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development under Governor Bill Haslam. During my ti​me working for the state, I managed to secure more than $300 million in investments for west Tennessee counties through new business and expansions. Thanks to this work, I was recognized as an emerging leader in state government by the chief of staff for the governor’s office.

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CD: And what is the relationship of your office to the Equal Business Opportunity (EBO) and the Small Business Enterprise (SBE) Programs?

JM: The city of Memphis Office of Business Diversity and Compliance is authorized by legislation from Memphis City Council and under the authority of Mayor Strickland. The primary function of the office is to serve as the support agency and administrative arm to the Equal Business Opportunity (EBO) Program and the Small Business Enterprise (SBE) Program. The mission of the Office of Business Diversity and Compliance (OBDC) is to ensure that the legislative intent of City Ordinance #5384 and City Ordinance #5366, which created the EBO and SBE Programs, are carried out in all procurement activities and opportunities. Areas of administrative authority and/or enforcement include areas of City procurement activity: construction, professional services, and goods and non-professional services.

The overall goal of OBDC is to strengthen Memphis’ position as a “Best Practices” city for equitable economic development and measurable outcomes.

CD: Following up on your efforts to diversify business participation in city contracting, can you elaborate on why equitable and inclusive growth is a priority for Mayor Strickland?

JM: Equity and inclusive economic development is a priority for Mayor Strickland, and he has expressed that access to opportunities for small, minority and women owned business is good for all of Memphis. But wherever possible, government should invest in citizen capabilities to enable them to provide for themselves in rapidly and continually changing circumstances.

Mayor Jim Strickland at NLC’s State of the Cities 2018 event.

As Mayor Strickland said: “To truly boost our economy and realize our vision of a more prosperous and equitable future for our community, we must do everything we can to empower locally-owned, minority-owned, and women-owned businesses. Improving our economy like this will have a long-term positive impact on our challenges, such as crime and poverty. Our work continues, but the results to date speak for themselves.”

CD: OBDC launched Propel to help minority entrepreneurs/businesses. What is Propel and what new partnerships have your formed to help launch this program?

JM: Propel is a 12-week accelerator program developed exclusively for minority business enterprises. The last U.S. Census showed that there are around 49,000 African American businesses in Shelby County, but only 800 have more than one employee. The remaining 48,200 are better classified as “lifestyle businesses.” Public entities like the city of Memphis and private entities like FedEx, Nike and others are not usually — or in most cases, never — contracting with such small businesses.  Start Co. has a successful track record of helping build start-ups in the sophisticated industries of technology, medical device sales and other sciences. With this thought in mind, OBDC partnered with Start Co. to create Propel based on the identified need to offer capacity-building technical assistance to minority business owners in our community. The program was designed to do this by enhancing business models and offering a series of hands-on programming, mentor opportunities, technical resources and more.

CD: This is such a great opportunity for minority businesses to grow not only in Memphis, but regionally and globally. Another program that I am intrigued about is the “800 initiative.” How will your office work to grow minority firms’ revenues by $50,000,000 in five Years?

JM: It is and will be hard work, we know that, but we can’t jeopardize the momentum that Memphis is having. The 800 Initiative elevates the work that has been done with Propel and leverages other programming offered in the community to support small, minority and women owned businesses such as EpiCenter’s Co-Starters. The city of Memphis piloted three cohorts of Propel over the last two years. The recent launch of the 800 Initiative is a historical demonstration of Mayor Strickland’s ability to influence our community and create collaborations in the public/private sector space. The public/private partnership of the city of Memphis with  Startco, Epicenter, Christian Brothers University and FedEx Express is unprecedented in the Memphis community.

The public/private partnership is expected to double the revenue of 50 minority-owned firms with employees, and increase the revenue of 200 minority-owned businesses without paid employees, by $100,000. A very important component of the collaboration includes Epicenter’s executives-in-residence program, where companies that have completed the Propel accelerator will be able to work with later-stage business leaders after Propel’s programming wraps.

Since Mayor Strickland took office in January 2016, his administration, led by the OBDC, has increased MWSBE spending by 98 percent. These expenditures increased from 12.67 percent (in December 2015) to 23.61 percent (in June 2018). Additionally, the certified directory of small, minority and female business owners only had 138 listing; today, it has more than 530. We at OBDC believes it is not the government’s job to create businesses, but rather to create an environment that makes it easier to do business in Memphis.

CD: Joann, all this work reflects well on you, the mayor and the city. I feel honored to have worked with you during the EED Fellowship and to continue beyond the program. As a last question, I want to know: what was your experience like spending a year with other city peers addressing equity and economic development issues?

JM: The city of Memphis has continued to benefit from our participation in the Equitable Economic Development Fellowship. The ability to gain knowledge from experts across the country, as well as to share best practices with other peer cities, has proven to be beneficial. Our results truly speak for themselves. More importantly, we have been able to execute the strategies developed with the assistance of the National League of Cities. Being able to build our professional relationships, expand our network and grow our exposure is invaluable. So with that, I want to thank you once again for the opportunity you, ULI and PolicyLink gave Memphis to be part of this gratifying program.


About the Author: Carlos Delgado is the Senior Associate for the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the National League of Cities.