Multnomah County wins Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs' (OAME) Public Agency Award

October 29, 2020

Starting and running a successful business is hard. And for Black, Indigenous and other entrepreneurs from communities of color, this task can be even more difficult.

Lee Fleming, a Supplier Diversity Officer for Multnomah County Purchasing, remembers the additional barriers he faced as a Black entrepreneur in financial services. Fleming breaks these obstacles into three categories: access to capital, access to information, and access to Whiteness.

“If you’re Black and Brown many times you just get shut down. If you’re White you’re alright,” Fleming says. “That’s really unfortunate.”

According to Fleming, these barriers often intertwine and have a compounding effect for entrepreneurs of color. 

“If you don’t have access to information, you don’t know how to access capital, you don’t know who will help you, you don’t know where to look for the opportunities,” Fleming says.

Driven by his personal experience as an entrepreneur, Fleming has worked hard at the County to increase opportunities for other entrepreneurs of color. 

One of the organizations Fleming regularly recommends that business owners join is the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME), a Multnomah County partner that has helped support the work of Black and other entrepreneurs of color for over 30 years. 

This successful partnership was recognized at the October 8th Annual OAME Conference where Multnomah County received the OAME Public Agency Award.

Chair Deborah Kafoury accepted the award via Zoom, on behalf of the public agency that best exemplified OAME’s mission “to promote and develop entrepreneurship and economic development for ethnic minorities in the State of Oregon & SW Washington.”

Fleming says that the aid the association provides can help entrepreneurs close the gap on the many barriers they face by providing them with information and networking opportunities.

“When I was running a small business myself as an entrepreneur, I wish I knew about OAME,” Fleming says. 

In recent years, the partnership between OAME and Multnomah County has blossomed. 

The organization hosted many of the job fairs designed to attract firms and workers for the County’s $324 million downtown Central Courthouse and $94 million Health Department headquarters projects. 

Lee Fleming, left, testifies before the Board prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chair Kafoury credits this partnership with helping the County meet its diversity goals, so that 34 percent of firms working on the projects were owned by  minority, women, veteran, or differently-abled people. 

“OAME was at the table during the development of our Project Labor Agreement conversations and helped us establish our diversity goals and support to certified minority-owned, women-owned, service-disabled veteran-owned businesses, and emerging small businesses in the construction trades,” Chair Kafoury says. “OAME continued to work with us throughout the projects to monitor progress and help us achieve our goals.”

Fleming says the projects allowed many Black entrepreneurs to get their “foot in the door”, something that is often difficult. He remembers speaking with the Black owner of a small steel-working firm and convinced him to attend one of the fairs hosted at the Association’s headquarters. After attending the fair, their firm was placed on both the health headquarters and Courthouse projects.

Multnomah County Senior Policy Analyst Liz Smith Currie agrees that the partnership between the County and the Association has increased opportunities for a diverse coalition of small business owners. 

"Our Courthouse project developed solid and actionable plans for workforce and contractor diversity, including comprehensive outreach and technical assistance in bidding, mentoring, encouraging partnering, and removing barriers encountered by Certified firms, especially non-union firms,” she says. 

For the owner of the steel-working firm, his work on the projects even acted as a marketing opportunity for their work, says Fleming. 

“I tracked his history at how he was being treated and personally I’m so proud of him, he did such a fantastic job on both projects. Both project managers they rave about him, his business capacity has increased. He’s a tremendous example of a success story of how our outreach and marketing program has benefitted small businesses,” Fleming says.

Other OAME members were helped, as well.

Maurice Rahming and O’Neill Construction Group, Abdis Calixte at Complete Fusion Welding. They had tremendous capacity building opportunities in those projects,” Fleming says. “There’s several OAME members that have done well as a result of being on the courthouse project and through that outreach effort.”

For more information about Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs and how to become a member, you can fill out a membership application form here.