As Congress sets its eyes on passing a $1 trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Biden administration is looking to the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities to ensure the more than $100 million earmarked in the measure for the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) is equitably distributed.
HBCUs have long played an integral role in the American landscape, and have been an evolving piece of President Biden’s commitment to diversity, accessibility, equity and inclusion for all departments across the federal government. “They’re deeply connected to the communities,” says Don Graves, United States Deputy Secretary of Commerce of these storied institutions. “A lot of businesses utilize the resources of HBCUs. And the networks that are developed by the alumni of HBCUs are deep and effective.”
As outlined in the plan, investments from the infrastructure bill will allow more minority-owned businesses to receive federal contracting opportunities. Investments made to states and private companies will also have stipulations that will drive more opportunities to minority-owned businesses. “The hundreds of billions of dollars that are going to be invested for improving our roads and our bridges, in cleaning up our pipes or replacing our pipes to make sure that we have clean drinking water, and the investments to bring affordable accessible high speed broadband to every community in the country,” says Graves, “those contracting opportunities will be significant and include minority businesses in ways that we haven’t seen them included before, so that’s going to be the real opportunity.”
To ensure that happens, the administration has HBCUs on hand to ensure that there are adequate opportunities for businesses to get the support that they need, that they help them grow and that they utilize the expertise of the grads who are coming onto the market. At the same time, Graves says the administration wants to make sure that HBCUs have the financial wherewithal and the adequate resources to continue on, “not simply because of their deep history and tradition,” says Graves, “but also because they’re going to help our communities, the African American community, in particular, to outcompete what what other institutions can.”
The MBDA, at the Department of Commerce, is the sole agency in the federal government whose purpose is focusing on the growth and long term economic opportunity for minority businesses. In the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, the budget for the MBDA is more than doubled. With this additional funding, Graves explains that the agency will, “have the ability to provide technical assistance, like legal and accounting support, that many minority-owned businesses were lacking throughout the course of the pandemic, but even in years prior to that.” He adds that it will also help these businesses get the type of access to credit and capital they need to successfully kickstart and run their entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as provide grants to nonprofits that support these enterprises, and create a new program to promote entrepreneurship at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
“So, there are a number of different ways that through the legislation we are able to focus on an equitable disbursement of the funds,” says Graves. “The President has had this as a top priority from day one.”