Ashley D. Bell

By Cillea Houghton 

NASHVILLE, TN — Women and minority-owned businesses have an ally with the Small Business Administration (SBA), particularly through its 8(a) Business Development program that helps disadvantaged businesses, or companies that have a maximum networth of $250,000, gain access to contract jobs with the federal government. 

“The 8(a) program is special. It has been a catalyst for economic empowerment for communities of color for decades,” described SBA Regional IV Administrator Ashley D. Bell. “The 8(a) program is built to get you going, but by the time you graduate and we recruit these firms, we want them to also have as much private sector business as they have public sector business.”

Bell, who oversees eight southern states including Tennessee, has met with Nashville Mayor David Briley to connect quality firms ranging from janitorial services to energy management with federal government contract jobs, using 8(a) as a tool to help them become more competitive businesses. One of the key components of 8(a) is the opportunity for disadvantaged businesses to receive micro loans ranging from $500 to $25,000, along with side contracts of up to $4 million through the federal government. 

“I want to look at this as an opportunity in my continued business here to work from Memphis to Nashville to try to figure out who’s doing business with the city, who’s good at it, and try and recruit them to be good at it with the federal government,” Bell described, adding that the federal government is directing 23 percent of its spending towards small businesses and 8(a) firms are “going to be a big part of that.” 

One local business that’s benefited from the 8(a) program is Slim & Husky’s. Founded by entrepreneurs and TSU alumni Emanuel Reed, Clinton Gray and Derrick Moore, the owners worked at other firms before creating the popular pizzeria, bakery and bar in North Nashville, a concept they’re expanding to a new location in Atlanta. “They’re very successful,” Bell said, noting that the most loans in Tennessee are awarded to food and accommodation businesses. “I think that’s the beauty of providing these opportunities is that you see so many businesses that you just wouldn’t see anywhere else. We allow them to take an extra risk that they normally might not take.”

SBA is expanding the program’s mission with Drive8(a). Led by SBA staff and a committee of local leaders, Drive 8(a) will promote small minority and women owned businesses to larger companies that have supply diversity. The committee is appointed by the SBA state director and will better educate business leaders on Nashville’s economy and the struggles that local small businesses face, in addition to partnering with minority chambers of commerce. The ultimate goal of 8(a) is to help women and minority business owners build a sustainable future.  

“We want to help them go from owning a job to owning a business,” Bell said. “What’s important, especially when we look at communities that have been disadvantaged, is wealth transfer. It’s really hard to pass on a job, but you can pass on to your kids a business.”