Minority Business Development Agency's acting head on what's next for the 55-year-old agency

NEW YORK (AP) — In March, a federal judge ruled that the Minority Business Development Agency, an organization that has helped thousands of minority-owned businesses over the last 55 years, had to begin serving people regardless of race. The agency has since made adjustments to give help to all businesses owned by socially or economically disadvantaged people in obtaining financing and government contracts.

The Associated Press recently spoke to Eric Morrissette, acting undersecretary of commerce for minority business development and leader of the MBDA, about what comes next for the agency. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you come to be the Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Minority Business Development?

A: My mom dedicated her life to public service. She worked in New York City public schools for around 20 years. Every Sunday, my sister and I would help her prepare meals for her students, many of whom didn’t have enough to eat at home. I was inspired by my mother’s selflessness and service, and it helped me recognize there were families that couldn’t put food on the table. For some of those kids, that was the only meal they were guaranteed each day.

Q :How have you seen the agency make a difference in minority communities and for minority businesses?

A: MBDA’s mission is to help create an economy that gives every American the opportunity to build a successful business. There remains a $6.3 trillion opportunity gap between minority and non-minority-owned firms. If we are to out-compete the rest of the world and have the strongest, most resilient economy, it is in our national interest to close that gap once and for all.

Last year, we helped businesses secure over $5.4 billion in capital and contracts. That is up from $2.9 billion in capital and contracts the year before — a nearly 90% increase — and it is in large part thanks to our expansion under the Biden-Harris Administration.

Q: Since the ruling came down, what changes have you had to make? What happens next for the agency?

A: MBDA’s doors are open for business and we will continue to serve businesses owned and operated by socially or economically disadvantaged individuals, and we get results.

We are working closely with lawyers at the Department of Justice to weigh all of our options, but in compliance with the court’s order, we have updated our website and client engagement form and established new guidance for our Business Center operators, all while working with them to implement necessary changes.

MBDA, the Department of Commerce, and the Biden-Harris Administration are committed to ensuring that all people in all communities have the resources, access, and opportunities necessary to succeed. We are going to keep fighting to close the opportunity gap and keep pursuing the mission Congress gave us.

Q: Has the racial and ethnic makeup of who is applying for programs changed significantly, or is it too soon to tell?

A: MBDA Business Center operators have been very supportive of MBDA. They want to know how they can help, they are committed to supporting their communities, and will continue to do extensive outreach to make sure people know that MBDA is there to provide assistance. To me, that’s the main takeaway while we learn more about how potential clients and Business Centers adapt to any changes.

Something that has been really motivating to me has been the impact of our Business Centers. Our Missouri Business Center played a major role in helping Kingsway Development secure $62 million in financing to purchase a major residential development at the center of the historically redlined district north of the Delmar Divide in St. Louis. Along with helping to uplift the historically underserved neighborhood, the project is expected to create and retain over 300 jobs.

Q: Is there anything you feel like people misunderstand about the agency or the ruling?

A: Ensuring every American has the opportunity to build a successful business is critical to bridging the gap between what America is and what America can and should be.

MBDA was founded in 1969 by President Nixon and permanently reauthorized by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in 2021. It has historically enjoyed bipartisan support. Challenging the constitutionality of this organization questions the value of equal opportunity itself, which is incredibly frustrating and hurtful.

The work we do at MBDA benefits the entire country, not just the individual businesses we serve. When minority business enterprises succeed, our nation succeeds. Our work creating opportunities is not a zero-sum game. It is not about diminishing opportunities for some to give to others.

This work is about expansion. It is about creating a bigger pie with more slices. If the United States closes the opportunity gap between minority and non-minority firms, we would add an estimated $6.3 trillion and 20 million jobs to our economy. That benefits everybody, and it makes our country and our economy stronger.

Q: What do you want people that seek out services at the MBDA to know?

A: I want to make clear that MBDA is open for business. We are going to continue providing the services that have made MBDA a reliable business resource for business owners from all backgrounds for more than five decades. We help businesses overcome the greatest challenges minority business enterprises face, which is access, including access to capital, contracts, networks, and markets.