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'We've come a long way' | Virginia Beach city leaders provide update to disparity study

While the latest numbers are not reaching the goals, leaders say there are still signs of progress.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The scales have been unbalanced in Virginia Beach when it comes to women and minority-owned businesses.

City leaders held a meeting Thursday night to share data with entrepreneurs and the community. This stems from a 2018 disparity study that looked at their rate of securing city contracts.

While the latest numbers are not reaching overall goals, leaders said there are still signs of progress.

“When I started my business in 2011, a lot of people didn't want to give you information," said business owner Jemmalyn Hewlett.

Hewlett said she kept pushing to get what she needed. Now, she owns seven businesses in Virginia Beach.

“One of the reasons why I went into business is because I was able to offer jobs to others," said Hewlett. 

The 2018 study looked at imbalances in business opportunities in the city; specifically, if minority-owned, women-owned, service-disabled/veteran-owned businesses were treated differently.

The study looked at the years between 2012 and 2017, and found less than 19% of city contracts were awarded to women and minorities.

More recently, "spend dollars" in minority and women-owned businesses increased from roughly $48.9 million in fiscal year 2019 to $51.6 million in fiscal year 2020.

"We've come a long way. We do have a ways to go. We know that. We're not there yet, but we sure are not where we used to be," said Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten, who plays an instrumental role in response to the disparity study.

Credit: Virginia Beach Government

However, the gaps are more evident in further breakdown of those "spend dollars."

Non-Hispanic white women received more than half of the money in 2020. Asian Americans got a little more than 20%, Black Americans received 12% and Hispanic Americans got 3.1%. 

Credit: Virginia Beach Government

In February 2020, Virginia Beach City Council approved 12 recommendations to increase the number of minority and women-owned businesses. Some of those recommendations included more networking, outreach and financial opportunities. 

Hewlett said she has recently been seeing more minority and women-owned businesses opening up.

“I think it has a lot to do with just seeing minorities leading and guiding and educating others, and wanting to do what they do. So I believe it's just a community coming together out here and being able to let people give information," said Hewlett. 

Wooten explained that most of the 12 recommendations have been met.

One major outreach and support for businesses was the creation of The HIVE in Virginia Beach's Town Center, which is where Thursday's "Addressing the Disparity Forum" was held.

“In the recommendation, it called for one set-aside office to help small businesses, women, minority and service-abled businesses and that office is The HIVE," said Wooten. 

However, some of the recommendations involving what's called "aspirational goals" for business participation have not been met. 

Overall, the city improved from 2019 numbers, but fell way short of reaching the council's goals for business participation in the monitored groups.

For instance, women-owned businesses had an "aspirational goal" of 13.3% in city contracting. Fiscal year 2020 data show the number only reached 6.6 %.

"I run a billion-dollar company and I don't see it. If somebody presented this to me, this data, I would not be happy," said Gary McCollum, a local business and community leader. 

Some business leaders believe Virginia Beach can work on becoming more inviting, but there is hope that the trajectory keeps improving.

Like Hewlett, Jay Boone of the organization Keeping Us Secure & Prosperous thinks information channels have room to improve. 

"We just want to make sure that everything kind of adds up to what the mission is, what the cultural changes are that the city seems to want to push forward," said Boone. 

Wooten also emphasized they will continue to offer progress reports and work on responding to the recommendations of the disparity study.


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