Merlene Davis: There's help for minorities and women who want to grow their business


My father could build or fix just about anything from a wrist watch to the roof of a house. He built the garage at our home in Owensboro alone and after work hours.

His skills were in great demand, but that's as far as his side gig went. He never gave up his day job to go into business for himself.

A lot of people, who are just as skilled as my father in various areas, do start their own businesses. But they soon learn they aren't very good at running them.

If you are a woman or a minority business owner living that scenario, the Lexington Minority and Women Contractor Training Program is for you.

"A lot of people know their skills and they know how to do whatever it is their business does," said Dee Dee Harbut, program director of the Procurement Technical Assistance Center. "But they don't have a foundation for running a business. We give them the tools to do that."

The 10-week program that meets once a week on Tuesday evenings isn't for those who are contemplating going into business. This program is for those who already have a business but want to take it to the next level.

Small business owners may not understand how to manage cash flow or balance sheets or even how to pay employees. Their eyes, like mine, may glaze over when contract laws are discussed.

At the end of the year, she said, some owners learn from their accountants that they made a profit, but have no idea where that money is.

"I see so many businesses that could grow to the next level if they knew how to manage that business and grow that business," Harbut said. "Cash flow is king, queen, everything. If you don't have cash flow, you could go out of business. It may show on paper that you have a profit, but you can't pay your employees."

Unfortunately, a lot of people go out of business in five years or less, she said.

"It does take some extra effort to have a business and growing a business takes extra effort," she said.

Topics covered in the program include contract law; insurance and performance bonds; accounting and financial statements; estimating and bidding; cost management; project cash flow analysis; contracts and documentation; administration, management and subcontracts; and marketing and networking.

It sounds like a college business course, but at $100 it costs a lot less. Plus you get a box lunch.

There are nine sponsors for the this year's program, all of whom want small businesses to succeed.

"We did a study in 2013 to determine if any of our partners were awarding contracts to participants," Harbut said. "We learned they had awarded $6 million in contracts.

"People do business with people they know and like," she said. "They know what we are teaching."

Last year, Gov. Steve Beshear implemented a process that requires executive branch agencies to solicit at least one bid from ethnic minority vendors for goods and services between $1,000 and $20,000.

Those contracts for cleaning, construction, transportation, whatever, could mean a few thousand dollars more to a business.

Although the training program is not set up to certify a business as woman- or minority-owned, there will be information available on how to earn those certificates. And participants will learn how to register their businesses on the state's Small Business Connection vendor database, designed to help match small businesses in Kentucky with buyers from government agencies and large businesses, and on Kentucky's eMars Vendor Self Service system, the official vendor registration site for all firms that want to do business with state government.

"We teach you how to bid," Harbut said, so you can be competitive when businesses come calling for your services. "We have a professor from Eastern Kentucky University who has been doing this for years, who has won numerous contracts."

And if all that is not enough, Harbut said there can be follow-up sessions after the training program with mentors, with her PTAC office, with the Small Business Development Center, or the Minority Business Enterprise program at the local government.

Participants must attend at least eight of the 10 sessions in order to graduate, she said. The first step in qualifying for the program is having a business that is at least 51 percent owned by a woman or minority.

The training program started in 2001 under the Department of Transportation sponsorship. But after about seven years, the funding was lost. Harbut and Marilyn Clark, Minority Business Enterprise Liaison for the city, brought it back in 2010, tweaking it from 16 weeks to 10.

"We are there to help you all the way, every step of the way," Harbut said. "This is a passion of mine."