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People of color who own small businesses in college towns say it’s hard to sell to schools

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Terryl Calloway, owner of a print shop in Boston, stands in his office.

Terryl Calloway runs a small graphics and printing firm in Boston, a short distance from many campuses, but he says it’s been challenging to attract them as customers. Meredith Nierman / GBH News

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Terryl Calloway runs a small, Black-owned graphics and printing firm on Newbury Street in the heart of Boston — a short distance from about a dozen colleges.

“We print anything from business cards, flyers, banners, signs — anything print,” he said.

Though his business is surrounded by colleges, Calloway said it’s hard to arrange contract work with them. “Colleges have been pretty challenging. I call it the good old boy system. It’s the easy way out,” he said.

The murder of George Floyd two years ago prodded colleges across the country to pledge they’d increase contracting with businesses owned by people of color, in keeping with the value they place on diversity.

But supplier diversity appears to still be more of an aspiration than a reality in higher education — a nationwide industry that spends more than $630 billion each year

“Most of that money is going to the big companies,” said policy researcher Youngbok Ryu, who teaches at Northeastern University.

Ryu co-authored a report released this year that found large vendors account for most college expenses, including for construction, food service and legal work. But diverse businesses tend to be small. Of the 359 Ryu’s team surveyed, 58% had 10 employees or fewer.

“Most of them mentioned that there is a huge barrier to entry to higher education [in] the procurement market,” he said.

The National Association of College and University Business Officers called increasing diversity in contracting a priority for its members, but added that few colleges are tracking the diversity of the companies they do business with.

While colleges tinker around the edges, Calloway said he’s noticed a few more schools expressing interest in his printing services.

“Since Black Lives Matter, it has mattered — who you give your business to and how you do your business does matter,” he said.

This spring, he landed a small contract with nearby Northeastern University to print banners for an alumni weekend. “A classic example of how opportunity meets a need,” he said.

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