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Helping businesses prepare for the Democratic convention

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As director of business relations for the Charlotte host committee for the 2012 Democratic convention, Robyn Hamilton's job includes helping business owners position themselves to win some of the anticipated contracts related to the convention. (Photo: Qcitymetro.com)
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Ever since news broke that Charlotte would host the 2012 Democratic convention, local business owners have been jockeying for a slice of the $150 million to $200 million in economic impact that the event is predicted to generate for the region.

Few know that better than Robyn Hamilton. As director of business relations for the Charlotte host committee, it is her job to help businesses position themselves to win some of the anticipated contracts related to the convention.

Charlotte organizers have pledged to raise and spend $36.6 million to host the convention. Considerably more will be spent by other groups and organizations on hotels, parties, transportation, food and beverages.

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Before joining the host committee, Hamilton spent more than 20 years in minority business development, most recently as president and CEO of the Carolinas Minority Supplier Development Council. Last year the organization helped minority-owned businesses in North and South Carolina secure more than $400 million in new contracts, mainly from Fortune 500 companies.

Hamilton recently sat with Qcitymetro.com to talk about her new role and what local businesses should expect -- and not expect -- from the 2012 convention.

“It’s too much to expect that everyone who wants to do business with us will do business with us,” she said.

The host committee recently unveiled an online business directory that convention officials will use to sift through potential vendors. Hamilton said anyone looking to do business with the convention must be registered there. But organizers said they also hope that private companies will use the directory to locate vendors and subcontractors.

Local organizers have rejected a call by some African American business owners to establish minority-participation goals for convention spending. Hamilton defends that decision and said convention leaders are committed to inclusion.

“Just because there is a goal doesn’t mean the goal (would) be met,” she said. “…I think what folks need to focus on is the leadership that’s in place...That’s what’s going to make the difference. It won’t be a goal.”

Below is a Q&A based on our conversation with Hamilton. Some answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
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Q. In your previous job, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

“I think first and foremost, bringing the minority business issue into relevancy… moving it from a civil rights discussion to a business rights discussion. This is about business, and I think we had lost sight of that in this region. …It is about economics. And the second thing, by far, I’m most proud of is the partnerships we created with the Charlotte Chamber to start the Minority Business Economic Development Initiative, which we successfully launched, fully funded, and it’s already growing.”

Q. You mentioned civil rights versus business rights. Do you believe that race plays no role in business decisions?

I believe that relationships play a role. Obviously, if we’re not at the same country clubs, if our kids aren’t playing on the same soccer fields, certainly if we’re not at the same churches, we’re not being intentional, we’re not in the places where those relationships are happening. People do business with people they know. They do business with people they’re comfortable with. The reality is, if you’re not necessarily comfortable sitting with a black man and having a heartfelt conversation, maybe you won’t build a relationship. It would be crazy for any of us to believe that race does not play a factor in it. If you look at it, minorities hire minorities. Asians hire Asians. Native Americans hire Native Americans. We all… work in a space we feel comfortable with. You have to be intentional about building relationships.”

Q. How healthy is minority business in the Charlotte area?

“I would say that to a certain extent, it’s fairly standard. You have less than 3 percent of the (minority) firms around here that will make over a million dollars. …We have to move outside of our norms, outside of our circles. We have to go to places we don’t traditionally go to. We have to network with the Charlotte Chamber. Regardless of how you may feel about them, those are key players in this city that could possibly have an impact on buying decision…The thing that still befuddles me and the thing that is still a challenge to me is getting minority businesses, particularly African American businesses, to understand the value of joint ventures, strategic alliances and partnerships. If you look at the world, nobody is growing organically anymore. Duke just bought Progress Energy. We have to look at doing things we haven’t done before. We have to look at buying companies. That’s becoming the way of the world, and that’s not going to change.”

Q. Talk about your decision to take this new job with the convention host committee.

“I obviously saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime. Not only that, it was an opportunity in an almost 22-year career to bring an issue like minority business to the national forefront. So I was honored and delighted that they were even asking, quite frankly. There are a lot of talented people in this community. Any one of these folks out of a supply chain could have come over and run a vendor management program. But the host committee and Dan Murray seemed to be strategic in bringing in someone who not only could run a vendor management program but could also understand the dynamic of making sure we are as inclusive as possible.”

Q. What should businesses expect from your office?

“Businesses should expect that we are going to be focused on raising $36.3 million as a priority and successfully putting on a convention that will favorably highlight and showcase the city. They should expect that. But they should also expect that we will be pursuing local companies to satisfy some of the procurement needs we’re going to have. I think they should expect us to be fair, open and honest in our approach. I think the database is a good first start. We are aggressively looking and pursuing all suppliers that are capable of delivering some of those services. I think they should expect that we will communicate as best we can with them about how they can position themselves.”

Q. Some groups are pushing for minority-participation goals, something that’s measurable. Is that too much?

“There has been a decision made not to set a goal. …I think the differentiator that I’ve seen in my 22 years has been leadership. It’s been someone who said, ‘This is going to get done,” then puts the resources behind it to get it done.”

Q. If there is no goal, how do you measure success?

“I think we measure it by whether or not leadership feels that this is the best we could do. They’ve got to make that determination along the way. It’s not our place to set a goal. It’s our place to make sure we get a favorable result… We have to give ourselves in this convention effort an opportunity to set a baseline. We don’t have a baseline... Also, I certainly have a personal interest in ensuring that there is business beyond the convention. ”

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