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Minority- and Women-Owned Businesses Face Big Challenges. Here's How Austin Tries to Help

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News
Rama Tiru, a photographer and artist, in her home studio in North Austin.

From lower wages to higher interest rates for loans, minority business owners in Austin often face disproportionate challenges. But city staff are working to help those businesses find more opportunities to work with the city of Austin.

The walls of RamaTiru's north Austin home are filled with original paintings and pictures she’s taken during her 30 years as a photographer. She got her start shooting industrial sites in India, photographing workers and heavy machinery on factory floors. She hoped to continue that work when she immigrated to Austin about 20 years ago, but she didn’t find much opportunity. Sometimes, she didn’t feel taken seriously.

“When I came here, I thought I’ll find some industrial work and every time I took my photography, they were asking me if I was an agent for some other photographer, and some people didn’t want to work with women 20 years ago,” Tiru said. “It was shocking because in India, I didn’t have that problem.”

Tiru eventually took a job managing the photo studio at a JC Penney, but she wanted to continue her artistic work. Then one day, a city employee told her about the Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise program. It helps disadvantaged business owners find opportunities to work with the city. Tiru registered right away, and soon, she was getting calls to shoot construction projects all around Austin.

“Recently I went and worked 200 feet under ground in a tunnel,” she said. “It was all so exciting, going down in the basket, walk down the tunnel and take some interesting photographs.”

Today, Tiru is one of 874 minority and women business owners certified by the city. The program gives the city legal authority to set goals for awarding contracts to those businesses, which often face challenges finding job opportunities, said Veronica Briseno, director of the city’s Small and Minority Business Department.

“Access to capital, access to bonding, and then just an opportunity to get their foot through the door and work with businesses that might not historically have worked with minority and women-owned businesses,” Briseno said.

Here’s how the program works. When the city awards a contract for a major project, it can set goals for the number of that project’s subcontracts to go to minority or women-owned businesses. The goals vary by project, depending on the number of available businesses that do the kind of work needed.

“So for example, if we are building a gym, we want to make sure that we’re looking at the things that are going to come into play in building that gym. The lumber, the flooring, that sort of thing, and then the number of certified firms in those areas,” Briseno said.

After last year’s passage of a major city transportation bond, Briseno says her office is focused on reaching out to minority contractors about work opportunities. Her office is hosting a workshop next Tuesday to teach business owners how to get certified.

Syeda Hasan is a senior editor at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @syedareports.
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