Valley agencies, chamber team up to improve diversity in business

The minority business assistance centers at Valley Economic Development Partners and the Youngstown Business Incubator exist to lift up and help sustain small, minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses in the region.

At the Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber, the organization recently announced its new director of economic opportunity and inclusion initiatives, Vern Richberg, who’s responsible for leading economic opportunity initiatives for businesses, particularly among diverse groups.

The chamber’s goal, Richberg said, is to create a racially inclusive vibrant regional economy “where all people benefit from their knowledge, their skills, the connections, the resources we have here in the (Mahoning) Valley, and that’s regardless of who they are.”

“This is really about creating opportunities for underserved and underutilized businesses,” Richberg said.


Before July 1, the MBAC at the YBI was really “all things to all entrepreneurs,” from startups to later stage companies, Tanisha Wheeler, director, said.

After July 1, the MBAC at the YBI and Valley Partners began sharing responsibilities under a new two-year, two-tier host system rolled out by the Ohio Department of Development for its Minority Business Assistance Center Network Program.

Valley Partners in Liberty is the Tier 1 center, giving help to businesses in the idea and startup phase.

The YBI in downtown Youngstown is the Tier 2 center, serving the needs of existing growth- stage businesses to help with certifications, procurement and access to capital.

It serves a seven-county region from Lake Erie to the Ohio River: Trumbull, Mahoning, Ashtabula, Columbiana, Jefferson, Belmont and Monroe counties.


Think of Tier 1 as the ABCs of business, helping a startup stand up — giving help that includes business plan development, technical assistance or financial projections.

It’s really about getting the client to a point where they can start the business.

Having the designation means Valley Partners is the main contact for startup companies, Matthew Longmire, business resource manager for Valley Partners, said.

“So we help provide free one-on-one technical assistance to startups, mainly startups, but we can do companies that have been in operation, as well, over that two-year, three-year mark,” Longmire said.

Businesses getting help in Tier 1 are in the early stage, but typically know what product or service they want to offer.

It could be a situation where the business already has filed its legal documents with the Ohio Secretary of State or IRS, and they need help with funding, Tanay Hill, business resource adviser with Valley Partners, said.

Or, it could be an earlier stage than that, not having filed the paperwork or even without a name.

“It could be really, really early to progression … from our standpoint, it could be really early,” she said.

Some businesses getting Tier 1 help are hitting the ground running; others might need extra work and more technical assistance, Hill said.

“It really is a wide range … that startup, it could be an event planning company where they bought all of the equipment and everything, they are just looking for a venue,” Hill said. “They are ready to hit the ground running. They just might have their business plan ready, and we are reviewing it and getting suggestions on making sure they add the pieces that are needed for our credit department to review.”


“For Tier 2, we are now working with clients who are looking for procurement opportunities, funding opportunities and looking to scale or sell their business,” Wheeler said. “So, we are working with later stage companies that already have their feet on the ground, their boots are already strapped and they are looking at how they can grow their business through procurement opportunities, government contracts, state contracts, things like that.”

The MBAC at the YBI helps businesses achieve women-owned business enterprise, minority business enterprise, veteran-friendly business enterprise and EDGE, or Encouraging Diversity Growth and Equity, business certification. That last certification is for businesses owned by economically or socially disadvantaged entrepreneurs.

“So our main focus is diversity,” Wheeler said. “It’s just a matter of how do we provide additional support through the services we offer? So it’s them taking advantage of the program we offer to support that diversity.”

The MBAC at the YBI provides companies access to specialized services for certification and financial, business and supply chain resources.

“Once they come to me, the business is operating, running and ready to scale to some degree,” Wheeler said. “When I say ‘scale,’ it’s either through certification, funding, procurement opportunities, government contracts … so they are not a business that is coming in under one year.”


According to data gathered by the MBAC at the YBI, in 2023, the Tier 2 assistance center certified 58 minority businesses.

That includes 20 women-owned business enterprise certifications, 19 EDGE certifications, 14 minority-owned business enterprise certifications and five veteran-friendly business enterprise certifications.

Their goal was 40 certifications total.

Combined, the Tier 1 and Tier 2 assistance centers accounted for $1.28 million in capital infusion. In addition, both tiers had 282 new clients, far more than the goal of 130, and provided 773 hours of counseling.


The role of director of economic opportunity and inclusion initiatives is the natural outgrowth of the chamber’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) effort it rolled out about two years ago, Richberg said.

He said the idea is threefold:

For the chamber to be a resource for underserved and underutilized diverse businesses. “We are very interested in looking at how we can help minority businesses come together, network, organize, increase their capabilities and their capacities,” Richberg said.

To increase supplier diversity with a focus on community stakeholders, procurement and resource providers. “We want to be the connective tissue between these resources and the organizations,” he said.

To develop a strategy of learning and communication. “From the perspective of our collective congregation of chamber members … we want to be able to share approaches, provide leadership in that space for chamber members,” Richberg said.

He started in the role Jan. 3.

Some of his work so far has been with the Center for Economic Inclusion in St. Paul, Minnesota, an organization, he said, that works to close the “racial employment and income and wealth gap,” and other efforts to “build racially inclusive regional economies that work for everybody.

“Some of the work I have already begun doing is beginning to look at the threads of the regional economy and how the Mahoning Valley comes into play with our neighbors,” he said.



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