Environmental Scan FINAL REPORT

by | Mar 1, 2024 | Reports | 0 comments

The Montgomery County Black Collective is a nonprofit founded as a collective of Black business leaders, nonprofit executives, faith and civic leaders, and community groups to advocate for more resources for small, minority, and women-owned businesses, particularly Black-owned companies, and Black-led nonprofits in Montgomery County. We conduct community engagement forums throughout the year in the Black community, and our signature program is the AMBER program for minority businesses. The 16-week cohort is led by a business development coach that helps each Fellow with individualized coaching, key performance indicators, accountability, technical assistance, and strategy development. Our team supports the cohorts and coaches by arranging for subject matter experts when needed, connections to procurement officials and local and state solicitations, and cohost training with our partners.

A key component of our work is the conduct of Environmental Scans and engagement of the business community. The community engagement assessments compile data and report on the feedback of our stakeholders in the experience of doing business in Montgomery County, Maryland. As we address the feedback and recommendations of the minority business owners, we will continue to capture the ease of access to business development resources in the County. This summary and accompanying report reflect the results of the survey and focus group sessions with minority-owned businesses and nonprofit organizations operating and offering products and services in Montgomery County.

The Black Collective contracted with Jade Solutions to design and execute the business community survey. We determined that it was critical to have an expert in survey design and analysis to ensure that questions were properly worded and appropriate and did not lead the reader to any conclusion. As a follow-up to the survey, Jade Solutions’ contract included the facilitation and note-taking for the focus groups convened to further engage business owners. The focus groups resulted in extensive information sharing, networking, and recommendations in addition to deeper discussion about survey questions. There were four sessions coordinated for business owners and one session specifically designed for Black nonprofit executives.

METHODS OF DATA COLLECTION

The Black Collective used a variety of methods to collect data. Over a four-week period of time, from January 13 to February 12, we conducted the following outreach activities:

  • Email to our mailing list of 749 individuals and businesses; the email with link to the survey was disseminated three times over the six-week period
  • Email of a flyer announcing the survey and link to the 4000-person mailing list of the Maryland Black Chamber of Commerce (one time)
  • Email of a flyer announcing the survey and link to the 500-person mailing list of the Montgomery County Black Business Council (one time)
  • Email of the flyer to 500,000 residents of Montgomery County (one time)
  • Weekly posting of the survey on the Black Collective LinkedIn page resulting in 1145 impressions and 174 reposts
  • Email of announcement and survey link in the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) February newsletter

After three years of pandemic impact that created significant changes in how business is conducted, we recognize that there is a significant amount of survey fatigue among individuals. Small and large, profit and nonprofit, retail and business-to-business operations are attempting to gauge the satisfaction with their services often sending a survey immediately after payment of a product or service.

The Black Collective was not exempt from this process, and we experienced considerable resistance in capturing survey responses despite the outreach described above. Our partners, other government and academic institutions shared their similar experiences. The announcement of the closing of the survey and recruitment for in-person focus groups to gather more detailed feedback was more successful.

SURVEY

The advertisement flyer can be seen on page 8 of the report and the outreach resulted in 49 survey responses. It is important to note that the responses and feedback to the survey and in the focus groups are where we are focusing our attention. The Black Collective has worked to create a unified database of business services that is now available on our website. This is in direct response to the comments to Question 5 in our survey (Do you believe Montgomery County is small business friendly? page 11-12). A common comment was related to the lack of centralized services, accessibility, and resources in one place. In addition, our AMBER coaching program helps companies that find the business startup and development process difficult to navigate (page 12 comments).

In Question 7 (page 13) we asked about the greatest strengths of business development efforts in Montgomery County. More than half of respondents indicated that there are a variety of resources for business development and more than a third (35.3%) said that access to private and government decision-makers is a strength of the County. The Montgomery County Business Center was specifically selected by 23.5% of respondents and again mentioned in comments indicating that the County government offers transparency and good partners.

When we asked about what could be done better to allow new and small businesses to accelerate their operations, 63.9% said they wanted more curated market development support. Additionally, more than half (55.6%) said long-term business coaching and accountability partners are needed. Our AMBER coaching program was specifically designed in response to this need that we heard from Black-owned businesses with which we have worked over the past three years. Considerable feedback referred to the need for more access to capital, business grants, and other assistance in finding and securing financial resources (page 14). There is a tremendous opportunity for the business development ecosystem in the County, that includes nonprofits, and public and private services, to use our collective voice to attract more targeted venture capital, utilize state and federal funding in the form of small business grants, and the establishment of more targeted low-interest loan programs for startup and emerging businesses.

A full outline of survey questions, responses, and comments is offered on pages 10-18 of the report. Considerable attention should be paid to the report content that provides the summary of specific comments which begins on page 19 of the report. The comments collected in the focus groups we conducted allowed participants a safe space to share opinions, resources, experiences, and recommendations. In all of the sessions, businesses bonded and created small group clusters to support each other. We recognize the importance of peer group support, particularly among marginalized and under-resourced organizations. In our continuing discussions with these organizations, more have learned about and responded to procurement solicitations that they otherwise might not know about. With the support of the peer group and our announcements on local and state solicitation opportunities, businesses are empowered to apply for contracts and other opportunities. Page 20 of the report shares feedback on reasons respondents consider Montgomery County to be a small business unfriendly. The reasons include contracting policies that do not favor small businesses, the need to “know someone” to get support, and geographic disparities in resources.

New businesses have indicated it is difficult to get a “chance” to contract with the County and that legacy vendors often shut them out. In offering changes that would be effective, page 21 of the report outlines feedback including the creation of a business checklist, videos, a simplified solicitation system, and assistance with visibility. The Black Collective, in response, is creating business resource documents, will be filming informational videos that will be available on demand, and expanding resources in our database. We are working with local media and marketing firms to offer more opportunities for visibility to the businesses in our AMBER cohorts.

 

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