Power of partnerships is on display at African American Chamber business conference

John Harmon, the founder and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, always is listening for new ways to connect his members to contracts — really, to connect his community to opportunities.

So, as he was listening to Karen Reif talk about a Public Service Enterprise Group energy program that was training and employing thousands in the Newark area with career opportunities and potentially some social services, he jumped into the panel he was moderating with a big-picture thought.

“We may want to speak to you about (how) we’re working with the Newark Housing Authority about child care,” he said. “We’re also in talks with Trenton and other counties. Because, if we could put child care to public housing, and get the tenants where they have somewhere to keep their children, then we can train them and put them to work.”

His voice trailed off for a second, but don’t be fooled. It’s by design.

This wasn’t the first time Harmon was hearing about PSEG’s programs. PSEG has been a longtime supporter of the chamber. Harmon, however, was seizing an opportunity to let the crowd at AACCNJ’s Business Leadership Conference last week know about the big-picture opportunities that are out there.

Getting contracts is one thing. A great thing, actually. But there’s more to do to bring equity.

He then picked up.

“We just want to give you a sense of how we’re thinking,” he said to the crowd. “We’re not your traditional chamber thinking about electioneering and regulation; we do that as well.

“We’re trying to get people in a better place and improve conditions. So, anyone who has any interest in supporting those types of initiatives. We’re open to having a conversation.”

It’s all about partnerships. The panelists knew exactly what Harmon was talking about.

Doug Mokoid, the region president for Atlantic City Electric, talked about a recent meet and greet between chamber members and AC Electric that is leading to contracts. AC Electric spent 37% of its supplier spend with minority firms in 2022 — a number MoKoid is looking to increase.

Harmon and Robert Hickman, the chief administrative officer of the Gateway Development Commission, talked about an event they will be having next month in Hudson County (date and site to be determined) for work on the multibillion-dollar tunnel project.

“We’re very intentional about what we’re trying to achieve,” Harmon said. “This is not just another showing-up event. We want to have people leave with a real understanding of the process and how they can compete for opportunity. That is the goal. There is a lot of money on the table.”

Indeed. Hickman noted that two recently announced projects by the GDC (worth $28.5 million) have higher-than-usual requirements for minority contractors — the Tonnelle Avenue project has an 18% Disadvantaged Business Enterprise goal; the construction management contract will have a 27% goal.

“That is well in excess of anything that New Jersey Transit or Port Authority or any of our sister agencies have as their goal,” Hickman said. “So, we’re doing it.”

It’s an intentionality that Harmon loves — especially in a time where set-asides are being questioned.

“In this new environment, where policy is being challenged, we’re going to have to get a little bit more innovative to make it work,” Harmon told the crowd.

Little things on both sides of the equation can have big impact.

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Reif reminded those in the crowd the importance of being certified as one of the many possible ownership groups (minority, women, veteran, LGBTQ, etc.). If you’re not certified, you don’t count.

Mayra Rinaldi, recently promoted by Columbia Bank to oversee environmental, social & governance strategies — which includes the bank’s new program on supplier diversity — said just scrubbing the list of potential suppliers has had impact throughout the organization.

“It naturally increased our numbers because we’re talking about it at our vendor management committee — and all of our vendors know that we want to provide opportunities for diverse businesses,” she said.

Columbia had a recent meet-and-greet, too. She’s eager for more.

“I think that is one of the important things of building connections — so that we know you and you’re staying in front of us,” she said.

Having intent that leads to outcomes was a recurring theme of the event. As were partnerships. Harmon has been preaching since the first days of the chamber, in 2007.

“The African American Chamber of Commerce cannot accomplish its mission in a vacuum,” he said. “Black people alone can’t bring the transformation, we know that.”

Don’t be confused. Harmon and his group are not looking for a handout. It’s looking for an opportunity for the state’s 1.2 million Black residents — residents who, despite having the highest poverty rate and lowest rate of homeownership, contributed $56 billion in consumer spend last year, he said.

“For New Jersey to do better, we must find a way to better leverage our collective talent and abilities to improve our overall competitiveness,” he said.

It’s all about partnerships.

“We’re better together,” Harmon said. “There’s no question about that.”

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