Last summer, Norman Bristol Colón became Pennsylvania’s inaugural Commonwealth Chief Diversity Officer. In this role, Colón works with the more than 30 agencies under Shapiro's jurisdiction to strengthen equity and inclusion in Pennsylvania’s workforce and help agency staff prioritize these efforts – as well as bolstering opportunities for small diverse businesses.
Colón, who was chief diversity officer for the Department of Community and Economic Development and was part of the transition team for Gov. Josh Shapiro before taking on his current role, is also chair and founder of the Pennsylvania Latino Convention. In advance of his keynote speech at the 2024 City & State Diversity Summit, he spoke with City & State to preview what the commonwealth is doing to help small diverse businesses thrive as they navigate procurement and government relationships.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What successes have you seen in procurement with diverse businesses?
Well, if you look about two decades ago, when former Gov. Ed Rendell came into office, only about 2% of contracts given by the state went to minority- and women-owned businesses. Under this administration, 20 years later, we are celebrating about $1 billion that we have put out (12.2% of contract spending in fiscal year 2022-23 – or a 600% increase over the past 20 years). That is in great part due to the outstanding work of the Department of General Services, through outreach and the very intentional effort to be inclusive and diverse. So I think that that is an amazing success.
What have you heard from constituents or stakeholders about obstacles that diverse businesses are facing?
We hear a range of issues facing minority-owned businesses all across the state that are very similar to what we hear that is happening around the nation. This is a different administration and we have a different attitude – an attitude of inclusion and an attitude of equity. You can see it in the numbers: The Shapiro administration is totally committed when it comes to small businesses, to veteran-owned businesses, to women-owned businesses. We have a great opportunity to continue building on that.
We need intentional and strategic efforts so that these small, diverse businesses feel that the state government is a partner and that we provide information, especially in the case of Latino businesses. When you look at the numbers, Latino entrepreneurs are opening more businesses than anybody else – not only in Pennsylvania but around the nation – so including bilingual information is important.
In the governor’s first budget is a $20 million investment in small diverse businesses, to open the doors of opportunity for them, so they see a partner in this administration. A lot of these businesses were coming to us and saying, “There is no support from state government. When we are opening a business, we don’t understand the process.” So the Department of Community and Economic Development is working to include these businesses in all the processes. For example, we changed the formula to define a small business from having $38.5 million in revenue to $47 million in revenue, which will increase the pool of diverse businesses in Pennsylvania.
How can we ensure that diverse businesses can participate in implementing bigger government projects? How does that work?
One thing that I think we are doing very well is looking at the data. Data shouldn’t lie. We are seeing the pockets where we are doing well and where we are not doing so well. The second thing is policy. The creation of the governor’s Advisory Council for Inclusive Procurement is a policy, an effort by the administration to ensure that we bring diverse voices to the procurement process and that we are listening to them. We have also been looking at what investments are made by every single state agency in small and diverse businesses so we can have a bigger picture of where we are lagging – where there’s an opportunity to make some progress.
Looking ahead to the summit, what are you hoping to bring to or get out of the conversation?
One thing that is extremely important, especially when we’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, is that the nation is more diverse than ever before – and so is Pennsylvania. As Pennsylvania goes, so goes the nation. So I hope that at the summit, I can make the case for why this is so important for the future of the commonwealth. There are 1.4 million African Americans in Pennsylvania, 1.1 million Latinos and we have more than 600,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders. When you look at the bigger picture – you have heard the governor saying many times that he’s “competitive as hell” – we want Pennsylvania to compete. We have to prepare the landscape for Pennsylvania to be open for business, to embrace diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion values. I think that we’re going to position ourselves in a very good stage to compete nationally and internationally.
City & State’s Diversity Summit takes place Feb. 27 at the Penn Harris Hotel. For more information, including tickets, click here.