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County looks to expand its HUB program

Thursday, December 9, 2021 by Molly Walsh

Over the past four years, Stephen Blake, a partner at North Park Consulting, has served as a Travis County contractor, helping county agencies to function more efficiently. His work with the county began through the Travis County Historically Underutilized Business, or HUB, program.

As the co-owner of a certified women- and African-American-owned business, a particular selling point for Blake was the county’s efforts to meet the needs of women- and minority-owned businesses. He approved of the county’s use of the HUB program to help hire contractors who reflect the diversity of business owners in the region.

“It’s been stellar,” said Blake. “The Travis County Purchasing Office is a high bar. They are professional and innovative and equity is one of the values, and so you see that shine through in all their programs, including the HUB program.”

The Historically Underutilized Business program ensures that certified HUB businesses have equitable opportunity and consideration for county contracts and purchases. When the county is in need of a service, from a construction project to consulting, the HUB program can help county officials consider a diverse set of businesses for the job.

Currently, eligibility for the Travis County HUB program includes women- or minority-owned businesses such as North Park Consulting. But following a recent vote by the Travis County Commissioners Court, the program will begin to explore ways to expand eligibility to LGBTQIA+ business owners as well. 

Earlier this year, Travis County worked with leaders in the LGBTQ community and with Travis County employees who are a part of the LGBTQ community to create more substantive rights for LGBTQ residents and employees of Travis County. As a result, the Commissioners Court approved changes to the Travis County Code that provide additional protection for LGBTQ employees. The Commissioners Court also announced plans to work with the county’s HUB program to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

Findings from an ongoing study will help determine details of the program expansion. The study’s findings will be presented to the Commissioners Court in early 2022.

“From a policy perspective, including LGBTQIA+-owned businesses in the county’s procurement process is an important step for our county,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said. “The way that the procurement process is structured matters a lot as it speaks about our values and priorities. Since anything Travis County procures is done using taxpayer money, it is critical to use it responsibly, equitably and fairly.” 

Since the HUB program’s inception in 1994, it has conducted about $418 million worth of business with HUBs, including more than $35 million in 2021. Of the county’s total expenditures, totaling $161.7 million in 2021, nearly 22 percent of businesses that the county contracted with were certified HUB, up from 12 percent in 2017. That increase is due in part to the county’s refinements to the program, which emerged from a disparity study conducted every five to seven years. The HUB office contracts with outside consultants to review the program’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The studies, including the one completed in 2016 and the one currently underway, include overviews of potential inequities that women- and minority-owned businesses may face in the regional marketplace. At the conclusion of the study, recommendations are made to county officials to improve the program and address potential inequities with the county purchasing office.

After consultation with county officials, the current study was crafted to explore the potential expansion of the HUB program to include LGBTQ business owners.

The 2016 study resulted in the creation of the HUB office’s Readiness Training program, which helped open the door for Blake and his partners at North Park Consulting. The HUB office works with local universities to provide educational and business development opportunities for HUBs. 

Blake became acquainted with the Travis County HUB program through a Small Business Partnership event in 2017 where he learned more about the county’s efforts to diversify its contractor pool. Almost five years later, Blake has been both a client and a contractor of the HUB program, completing communication and stakeholder engagement projects. By engaging with the program from multiple angles, he has not only seen his business grow, but has witnessed other women- and minority-owned businesses become county contractors.

“They’re certainly trying to advocate for and provide means for women- and minority-owned businesses to have an equal foot in terms of projects that the county is embarking on,” Blake said.

At the most recent installment of the Readiness Training Program, the HUB office has partnered with the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, a think tank centered around economic development. The partnership will consist of a series of courses related to contracting with government agencies and business development techniques. 

Becoming a certified HUB can be advantageous because it opens pathways for businesses to connect with potential customers. Certified HUB businesses can also enter into statewide databases, allowing for partnerships with both public and private agencies. 

“Certification opens doors in both the public and private sectors,” said Sylvia Lopez, director of the Travis County HUB program. “It allows businesses to market themselves as a legitimately certified business, which can help an agency achieve their HUB commitment to diversity and inclusion. It also achieves the same goal of opening doors with potential prime contractors that do business with government and private sector.”

Generally, HUB certifications are awarded to businesses that are majority owned by women or individuals from certain ethnic or racial backgrounds. The Travis County HUB program does not provide certification for businesses, but it does recognize HUB certifications from four local agencies, including the state of Texas, the city of Austin, the Texas Department of Transportation, and the South Central Texas Regional Certification Agency.

If the Commissioners Court approves the expansion of the HUB program sometime next year, the HUB office will seek out an additional agency to certify LGBTQ-owned businesses. None of the agencies that the HUB office currently works with certifies LGBTQ-owned businesses. Because of that, Lopez said, the office may recognize certification from a national agency like the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. 

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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