Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.
Guest blog post by LaJuene Desmukes, Director, Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization
As the Director for the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, I am the Department of Commerce’s chief advocate for promoting the use of small business concerns to fulfill its contract and grant requirements. Helping small businesses navigate the complex Federal acquisition arena and successfully pursue opportunities is the most rewarding job I’ve held over the course of my 34-year career.
I serve as a liaison between small businesses and the Department, seeking out and connecting quality firms with the necessary skills and expertise to meet the Department’s requirements. One of the more interesting aspects of my job is the opportunity to meet with individuals in both the government and private sector who work on projects and build solutions benefitting the nation and the world. The more I learn about the Department’s programs and industries’ capabilities, the better able I am in helping small businesses pursue and compete for opportunities with Commerce.
Small businesses, including disadvantaged, women-owned, service-disabled, veteran-owned, and small businesses located in Historically Underutilized Business Zones, are the backbone of the nation’s economy and the primary source of jobs for Americans. I’m proud to help small businesses successfully pursue contracts and grants with the Department, and to use these opportunities to help small businesses grow and thrive.
My desire to help others was impressed upon me by my parents. They met and married in Washington, DC, in the 1940s after migrating from the South in search of better paying jobs. Together they raised three boys and two girls. My parents wanted their children to have opportunities that were not available to them growing up in the segregated South. They stressed the importance of faithfully serving God, paying tithes, and honest work. These were the cornerstones of the Black community in which I grew up. My parents exemplified their beliefs by holding various church offices, paying off their mortgage, helping those in need, and serving in the federal government. My mother worked for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for over 40 years and retired as a clerical supervisor. My father retired as a Freight Rate Specialist from the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) after 35 years.
I am the beneficiary of the Civil Rights movement. As a child, I listened to the stories told by my parents, aunts, uncles, and others of what life was like for Blacks in segregated America. I saw the aftermath of the riots after the assassination of Dr. King. I feel blessed to have been able to grow up in an era where public schools, swimming pools, and other public places are open to everyone. Now that I’m a parent, I’m teaching my son the same ethics my parents taught me.
I graduated from the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Procurement and Public Contracting in 1988. During that time, UDC was one of only a few schools offering a degree in public contracting. Earning my degree was probably one of my most challenging feats because I worked full-time to support myself and went to school at night.
Black History Month provides an opportunity for everyone to recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements made by people of color. It is as relevant today as when Carter G. Woodson conceived Negro History Week back in the 1920s. I grew up celebrating Black History Week in school. That is when I learned about the history of African Americans. I was most drawn to the story of Harriet Tubman, a woman who was born into slavery and later escaped only to return to help others to freedom. I often use her story as inspiration, whether at work, church, or in the community, because the theme is always relevant: “service to others.” Harriet Tubman was only one person, and she shared her vision and recruited others to help. Together, they formed the Underground Railroad, during which Harriet Tubman went on many dangerous missions and successfully led hundreds to freedom. Harriet Tubman is someone who I think is one of the best examples of leadership, service to others, and how to leverage resources to achieve a shared vision.
My advice to young Black Americans interested in a federal career as a small business advocate is to remember the theme: “service to others.” Small business advocates are dedicated to helping small businesses grow and succeed. They promote the purpose and benefits of the Small Business Program to inspire others to lend their support. Small business advocates must work collaboratively with people of all backgrounds and with different priorities in order to devise strategies that benefit small businesses as well as program priorities. In the end, it is a rewarding feeling to know that you were able to help small businesses gain access to opportunities that otherwise would not have been available to them.