When Abdul Barrie founded his own HVAC company, Environmental Systems Engineering, in 2002, he was eager to start drumming up business.

“I wanted to be hired because I was capable, not because I was a minority,” remembers Barrie, who is African-American. “But just because you’re capable, that doesn’t get your foot in the door.”

If city contracts are any indication, Barrie is right. The year after he started his company, an independent study found that minority- and woman-owned businesses enterprises (MWBEs) had not been able to “equitably participate in the receipt of city contracts under $25,000,” with 98 percent of the value of the city’s available contracts going to businesses owned by white men.

interior of community center
Multi-purpose space in the newly built Lena Park Community Center in Mattapan.
Photo Credit: Boehm Architecture

But construction projects pose big-dollar chances to improve opportunities for MWBEs. When the Lena Park Community Development Corporation planned to renovate part of a Mattapan school building into a community center in 2013, it made the hiring of MWBEs an explicit goal. The Lena Park CDC hired Kaplan Construction, a woman-owned business, as the general contractor and included targets of 30 percent MBEs and 10 percent WBEs in the contract.

Kaplan accepted the challenge.

“A number of community development corporations, institutions, and city development mandates are encouraging the use of MBEs and WBEs as well the hiring of a minority and women work force,” Melissa Bullock, a Kaplan spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail. “In strong economies like we are currently experiencing, the availability of these companies becomes strained and therefore makes meeting the hiring goals much more difficult.”

The key, Bullock wrote, was that Kaplan had built relationships with MWBEs in over 40 year of business.

This relationship-building is crucial to MWBEs as well.

“The most important part of the hiring of MBEs is that it introduces us to bigger contracting companies,” Barrie said. “Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have the opportunity for those introductions, to showcase our ability to get the jobs done.”

four construction workers in hard hats
Employees of the HVAC company Environmental Systems Engineering , a minority-owned business that worked on the Lena Park project.

On the Lena Park project, which was completed in December 2014, Barrie’s company installed six central heating/AC systems, complete ductwork, and three energy recovery ventilation systems. Kaplan, in turn, was able to approximate one goal and far exceed the other, contracting with 23 percent MBEs and 33 percent WBEs. As a result, the Lena Park project created over $700,000 in business for MWBEs.

Kimberly Simmons, the current executive director of the Lena Park CDC, considers the hiring of MWBEs and minority and women workers a core priority of her organization.

“There’s no excuse in my book for not getting people from communities of color,” Simmons said. “We do so much development in this community. It’s incumbent upon us to try even harder next time.”

The city is trying harder, too. In February, Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order that instructed every city department to set contracting goals for MWBEs and commissioned a new study to analyze bias in city procurement.

“Ensuring equal access across all modes of local government is more than a moral imperative – it is just the right thing to do,” Walsh said at the time. “We must address economic inequities and build for a stronger and healthier Boston – a city that provides the same ladder of opportunity for all.”

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