Advancing Critical Services Amid Crisis

How Houston reorganized to lessen the impact of COVID on entrepreneurs of color
by Pearl K. Cajoles, External Affairs Manager, City of Houston Office of Business Opportunity and Lalla V. Morris, Assistant Director, City of Houston Office of Business Opportunity | August 28, 2020 AT 11:00 AM
David Kidd

The following blog post is part of the City Accelerator initiative, a collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.

As social distancing became the ‘new normal’ at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of small business owners – including those served by the City of Houston’s Office of Business of Opportunity (OBO) – were forced to close their doors. While all City operations remained open, OBO had to suspend all in-person services to ensure the safety of its employees and the public.

Established in 1984, and formerly known as the Mayor’s Office of Affirmative Action, OBO is dedicated to promoting equal access to City procurement opportunities for small businesses owned by historically underutilized groups. OBO certifies Minority, Women, Small Business Enterprises (MWSBE); Persons with Disabilities Business Enterprises (PDBE); and Airport Concessionaires Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (ACDBE). OBO also provides contract compliance monitoring, workforce development programs, capacity-building programs, and the OBO Solutions Center, which helps startups and new businesses scale their operations and navigate government regulations. Before COVID-19, all services offered by the Solutions Center, including classes, workshops and businesses counseling sessions, were offered in person.

Last Spring, the City of Houston was one of 10 cities selected to participate in the City Accelerator Inclusive Procurement cohort, a collaboration of Living Cities and Citi Foundation. OBO has been working in partnership with the City Accelerator to ensure equitable contracting and create more opportunities for businesses owned by people of color.

“Even with all the closures around us, it was not an option to put our operations on hold. With a massive economic downturn, we knew that our customers would need us even more. We immediately started plans to transition our services to a virtual platform to ensure continuity,” said OBO Director Marsha Murray, whose position was confirmed by Houston City Council on April 22, four weeks after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a Stay Home, Work Safe order on March 24. 

Going virtual and the power of partnerships   

As COVID-19 took its toll, OBO released several surveys to assess the most pressing needs of the small business community, including the Small Business Resiliency Survey. Results showed that only a quarter of small businesses have a business continuity plan in case of a national emergency or disaster, and that 50% of small businesses have technology infrastructure to enable their teams to work remotely. Results also confirmed that the most immediate need was for financial assistance, as businesses struggled with revenue loss and the lack of cash reserves to continue operations. Forty percent of survey respondents had seven days or less of cash on hand, and 60% had 14 days or less of cash on hand. Only 10% of small businesses had business interruption insurance. 

While OBO does not provide direct financial assistance, these surveys became a springboard for the creation of new programs to help ease the financial burdens of its customers. This information also developed the City of Houston’s $15 million CARES Act-funded program – Houston’s Small Business Economic Recovery Program – that will help small- and minority-owned business with funds outside of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL).

As another early initiative, OBO revamped its website to include its COVID-19 Resource HUB, a collection of important links with information about emergency financial resources for small businesses, as well as health and safety information for business owners, their employees and the public. Links that received the most clicks included those with information about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and other financial assistance programs. Improvements to the website also included easier navigation, feeds to OBO’s social media pages and links to on-demand Pre-Certification Workshops.

Video-conferencing platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, played an integral role in the continuity of other scheduled workshops and events. In April, OBO hosted a virtual graduation for Build Up Houston and Accelerate Latinx, executive education programs designed to help small businesses scale their operations. For these programs, OBO uses the “Streetwise MBA” curriculum provided by Interise, a nonprofit organization that helps small businesses increase their growth trajectories. Through their laptops and smartphones, and with the support of their families and friends, graduates celebrated with a virtual toast and happily displayed their graduation stoles. Mayor Turner attended to show his support, and the air of jubilation was not lost to the pandemic.

In April, OBO partnered with top-tier local and international law firms, including Vinson & Elkins, to launch the Houston Small Business Legal Consultations program. This free service offers 1-hour legal consultations over the telephone for small businesses and nonprofits affected by the pandemic. In May, OBO launched Access Granted, a series of webinars geared toward connecting small businesses to resources during COVID-19 and beyond. Guest panelists from a variety of industries have spoken about disaster relief, virtual networking, branding and marketing, contract bidding assistance, business development events, business repurposing, mentorship, business advising and counseling, and procurement advising.

“It was amazing to see how many businesses and individuals enthusiastically offered their time, talents and knowledge to help those most impacted by COVID-19,” said Murray. “These community partners have certainly helped us in advancing our objectives to ‘Educate. Connect. Grow.’”

Commitment to service and the most valuable assets

Finally, a note about OBO’s most important element to success – it’s people. Because City employees were deemed essential personnel, reporting to the office was mandatory for those without conflicts or underlying health conditions. All members of the OBO staff continued to perform their tasks in order to keep the continuity of service for all businesses impacted by the pandemic. Management implemented rotating schedules, and made sure employees had access to masks, hand sanitizer and other forms of personal protective equipment. Murray also kept in mind her team’s mental health. At OBO’s May department meeting, most of its 38-person team participated in a virtual mindfulness exercise, and everyone had the opportunity to reflect about positivity and gratitude despite trying times.

“COVID-19 revealed our team’s ability to successfully navigate unprecedented circumstances. Despite the challenges and apprehension about having to report to the office and to adopting new workflows, everyone held strongly to their commitment to providing exceptional service,” Murray said. “It is because of our team’s efforts that we were able to adopt incredible efficiencies. Our people are indeed OBO’s most valuable assets.”

OBO’s Contract Compliance division, which monitors more than 1,300 active City contracts in construction, professional and non-professional services, continued to process more than 470 contracts from March through May, with employees working from home on the rotating schedule. This included reviewing plans from certified firms, contract audits and reviewing payroll of certified firms to ensure the appropriate pay of workers on city contracts.

At the same time, OBO’s Certification division also saw an increase in the number of applications received, with the team certifying approximately 224 new businesses. Unique views of its virtual Pre-Certification Workshops in English and Spanish also surpassed previous in-person attendance rates, increasing by approximately 240 views over an 8-week period.

“Changes implemented including processing all application paperwork electronically and conducting virtual applicant interviews instead of in person,” said Tim Warren, OBO Certification manager. “The team remained positive and quickly adjusted to working virtual and remotely.”

Looking to the future

On June 1, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the City would begin to resume its normal schedule of operations, with special provisions and guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety. To prepare to receive customers once again, OBO has installed plexiglass partitions in the reception area and enforced limited seating in public areas and conference rooms. Employees continue to maintain social distancing guidelines, with many reporting increased customer preference for virtual services.

As Murray looks toward the future at the helm of OBO, she recognizes that Houston – and the entire nation – will continue to see the effects of this crisis for months, even years ahead.

“Our work never stops, even in a global pandemic,” Murray said. “What we learned is that flexibility and the ability to pivot goes a long way, and there is much more to be explored in terms of taking operations to the virtual space. As businesses and the rest of Houston begins to reopen, we are looking forward to developing strategies – including initiatives from our work with Living Cities – to seize opportunities for service and advance our work even further.”

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.