Addressing economic inequity isn’t easy. It takes a lot of heavy lifting, a full load of gumption, and perfect timing – not to mention patience and perseverance – for minority-owned firms to be successful in the corporate world. Sometimes it also takes a gentle nudge like Let’s Do Business, a trade fair sponsored by The Greenlining Institute aimed at putting minority-owned firms together with leading companies in the financial services industry – a field which represents 25 percent of the U.S. economy, according to Michael Synn, a consultant who organized the trade fair in partnership with Greenlining. Fourteen banks attended the most recent Let’s Do Business event, as well as dozens of minority-owned businesses.
All the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for Maurice Brewster in 2010. Brewster became the breakout success story at Let’s Do Business after his company, Mosaic Global Transportation, was offered a $5 million, three-year contract to provide services for JPMorgan Chase, beating out 10 companies in the process.
Brewster is a tall, jovial, personable man who happens to be a diehard sports fan. His office is filled with sports memorabilia he’s accumulated over the years, including enough signed San Francisco 49er jerseys and footballs to fill a small museum. The team is one of his clients, and he prides himself on having built a strong business relationship with them.
In conversation, Brewster comes off as smart and self-assured. He’s easygoing and relaxed, whether joking around with a longtime friend he hired as an employee, or being interviewed by a journalist. But underneath his calm demeanor lies a quiet sense of self-determination and resiliency.
Though confident about his skills and abilities, Brewster is continually looking to better himself – a trait which has rubbed off on his business. In 2010, Mosaic, which services 440 cities around the globe, was honored with the United States Chamber of Commerce Blue Ribbon Award, an honor given to the top 75 American businesses each year.
Brewster’s path to success didn’t happen overnight. A sales and marketing guy by trade, he climbed the corporate ladder up to executive-level positions in major companies, then worked in Silicon Valley during the dot-com era. “After the last layoff,” he says, he decided to go into business for himself.
“I didn’t want to be in the car business, but I figured as a guy who’s been in the back of cars, I could go into the limousine business and do it better than someone else,” he explains. Brewster built his business around a set of core values: “Integrity, high-quality service, honesty, trust, and complete and open, honest communications.”
Even so, the company faced an uphill road: “The biggest challenges we’ve had are access to capital,” Brewster says. “The assets we have in my company are moving assets. And banks don’t like moving assets, so we have a difficult time getting loans for funding and lines of credit. We’ve had to self-invest in our company.”
A key moment for Mosaic came in 2008, when the company was certified by the Northern California Minority Supplier Development Council. That began what Brewster calls “a phenomenal run of major Fortune 100 companies [that] have chosen us as their transportation provider.” Those same firms, he says, “are the corporations that I was knocking on the doors [of] 10 years ago, nine years ago, eight years ago, and having no success.”
Just as important as getting certified was Brewster’s drive to build a better business. Thanks to a Greenlining program, he and some of his employees were able to take classes at UCLA’s Anderson Business School ¬– for free. Brewster also made the rounds at trade fairs, consistently seeking out networking opportunities and aiming to build his client base.
In fact, Synn says, Brewster had attended two previous installments of Lets Do Business and walked away empty-handed. But instead of becoming embittered, when Synn asked him to attend a third event, he agreed. That turned out to be the charm.
JPMorgan Chase invited him to submit a response to a request for proposals (RFP), for which Brewster started off at a disadvantage. As he explains, “The RFP had already hit the streets, so we didn’t have a level playing field.”
Despite having less time than competing companies to complete mountains of required paperwork, Mosaic was short-listed for the contract. Brewster then had to make a couple of trips to New York to seal the deal. Mosaic got the contract, he says, because, “We provided phenomenal service, pricing was competitive, phenomenal references. Didn’t hurt that we were certified minority-owned.”
Getting the contract has opened the door to other top companies; Brewster’s since added Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and SunTrust to his client roster. But an even bigger win, perhaps, is that he’s been able to provide stable employment and subcontract to other minority-owned businesses: “The obvious upside is jobs,” he says.
Mosaic’s revenues topped $3.8 million in 2012, up from $3 million in 2011. In the midst of a recession, Brewster’s been able to retain his 40 employees and hire subcontractors. And he projects 35 percent growth in 2013. “We’re building equity and value,” he says. Brewster credits supplier diversity programs for allowing his company the chance to shine. Because of supplier development programs and the creation of government offices devoted to addressing inequity, he explains, “We can have equal footing. ‘Cause it’s not equal footing out there.”
According to Synn, without a concerted diversity program, corporate investment in minority-owned businesses is only about one to 1.5 percent. However, things are starting to change. He notes that programs already in place like the California Public Utilities Commission’s supplier diversity program can raise those numbers to 30 percent or higher, a model that other fields could emulate.
The recent advent of AB 53, which governs California’s insurance industry, means 203 insurers representing $100 million or more each in premiums are now required to publish numbers on diverse contracting, Synn says. Another push for increased economic equity is coming from the federal government, via the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI), established in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. One of the OMWIs’ tasks is to promote diversity within both the financial industry and the government agencies that regulate it.
Yet just being a certified minority-owned company doesn’t guarantee success, Brewster cautions. “You still have to answer the RFPs properly, you still have to have competitive rates. You still have to sell your program to that company and convince them that we are one of the best companies out there. But the access part is so key… the exact same skill set that I have today, I had 10 years ago, 11 years ago when I started the company. But I wasn’t getting in the door to the right people until I got certified.”
Brewster’s story marks the result of a long process that aims to make economic equity the rule and not the exception. Part of that process involves lobbying for governmental efforts to promote diversity. A crucial piece is encouraging corporations to contract with minority-owned firms — which in Greenlining’s case includes sponsoring trade fairs, distributing lists of diverse firms, and monitoring the results. Last but not least, minority-owned firms have to be able to stand on their own merits and have bona fide qualifications for receiving corporate contracts.
That’s a lot, but when it works out, as it did for Brewster and Mosaic Global Transportation, the benefits flow throughout the economic food chain.