Nineteen public and private health care, education and government organizations in South Florida have joined forces to create a new digital platform designed to boost contracting opportunities for local, minority-owned small businesses.
The artificial intelligence-powered “regional marketplace,” set to launch this fall with a $1.2 million investment from the Health Foundation of South Florida, is to serve as a communal vendor pool from which local anchor organizations can draw contractors.
Leading the charge is a conglomeration of South Florida institutions — including Miami-Dade and Broward, their public-school districts, Florida International University, Broward College, University of Miami, UHealth and Broward Health — which together formed the South Florida Anchor Alliance (SFAA) in late 2020.
Baptist Health South Florida, Florida Memorial University (FMU) and the cities of Lauderhill, Miami, Miami Beach and Miami Gardens are also participating.
The platform presents a novel way for underrepresented small businesses to learn how to participate in government procurements and for organizations with deep pockets to spend more equitably, Health Foundation President and CEO Loreen Chant said.
And it’s a lot of money being spent; the 19 institutions participating in the program on average pay out a combined $8 billion yearly on goods and services.
“Imagine, if we could move the needle even a small percentage point, the amount of wealth and dollars and prosperity that we can move into our communities,” Chant said. “If we can work together, set the table and then focus on increasing opportunities … think about what that could look like for the neighborhoods and communities we’re serving.”
On Wednesday, FMU hosted hundreds of local stakeholders in a conference unveiling the platform, which is tentatively set to begin operations in September. FMU President Jaffus Hardrick described it as a “one-stop shop.”
But while the marketplace is meant to provide a single, pre-approved vendor pool for institutions to draw from, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
That’s where the AI comes in. Members of the alliance will be able to log into an online portal and input details about a pending project. The portal will then use an algorithm to match that member with the small business that best fits the project’s needs and any specifications unique to the organization.
“It’s configurable,” said Sky Kelley, founder and CEO of Avisare, the Los Angeles-based software company whose AI powers the marketplace.
“If we waited for all these organizations to agree on everything, we’d never get this done,” she said. “Each organization can use it in the way that makes the most sense for them based on its rules, regulations, etcetera. The difference is this is all shared across this network — the information, the vendors, the opportunities — and you have an organization like the Health Foundation of South Florida that can take that data across the board and then work to change the policies of these organizations.”
To enter and remain in the marketplace, a company only needs approval from one participating institution. It’s then there to be considered for all future contract opportunities.
Lisa Martinez, who works as lead facilitator for the SFAA, said that — that in keeping with the spirit of the initiative — the alliance first looked for a local company to provide the software necessary for the platform to function properly.
It wasn’t simple. The system had to be capable of linking the right businesses to the right contract opportunities, but it also needed to work with a number of different procurement portals, like Bidsync, that each institution uses.
Martinez said the group looked at a Broward company called GovLia, which was “beginning to test the waters” for the kind of service the SFAA sought. But it hadn’t yet gotten there yet. Avisare, conversely, was ready to roll, having provided similar services to Los Angeles County and a local municipality.
For Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who before entering politics founded and ran the community-boosting nonprofit Catalyst Miami, the SFAA marketplace is the realization of years of work and research.
More than eight years ago, while on the Miami-Dade Commission, Levine Cava passed legislation authorizing a study of community wealth disparities. The resulting report, sponsored by a philanthropic arm of Citi, highlighted how failing to close the county’s “prosperity gap” could lead to a “drag on the broader regional economy.”
Citi recently donated $500,000 to the Health Foundation to continue funding the marketplace.
“This is about the power of persistence,” Levine Cava said. “It’s just self-evident this is the right thing to do. Why shouldn’t we take our local money and use it to invest in our local people? What’s more obvious than that?”
Broward Mayor Michael Udine discussed how the county had committed to apportioning at least 25% of its yearly contracts, valued at roughly $250 million, to small and minority-owned businesses.
“We intend to keep that promise,” he said. “We buy a lot of stuff, (and) as South Florida rises, we’re all going to rise.”
Black Americans in general face starker challenges than their White counterparts. Pre-pandemic figures by the Federal Reserve showed the median net worth of White families was $188,200 nationwide — 7.8 times that of their Black peers.
“That wealth gap translates to many other disparities, including in business ownership, which is heavily influenced by individual and family wealth,” researchers from the Brookings Institute wrote in February.
In 2019, just 2.3% of nearly 5.78 million employer firms across the country — companies with more than one employee — were Black-owned. Black Americans, meanwhile, constitute more than 14% of the population.
That remains true even in South Florida, despite its reputation as a top region for Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs. In January, Hispanic Unity of Florida and the Urban League of Broward County released a pair of studies underlining what they described as “alarming opportunity gaps” for county residents.
Bibi Hidalgo, who oversees government contracting and business development for the U.S. Small Business Administration and worked with her late brother, Patrick Hidalgo, under President Barack Obama, said the SFAA marketplace is the first program of its kind.
But she hopes it won’t be alone for long. As she travels the country, she plans to spread word of the platform and its potential.
“I have met some of the most innovative, extraordinary minority-owned businesses in the country,” she said. “We have so many innovators right here in Miami that are just looking for that opportunity to develop those relationship.
“That’s what this collaboration is getting to. The next step is to create those relationships, those networks, that wouldn’t happen otherwise and allow people to gain access to opportunity.”