The nonprofit world was not Yvonne Cheung Ho’s predictable destiny.
“My parents were both doctors. It was their dream was that I’d become a physician,” she remembers. However, an uncle who was a successful businessman made an impression on her; and, at an early age, she was set on a business career. Both career paths- business and service- have been put to good use at her post at the nonprofit Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda). In June, Cheung Ho retires as Meda’s longest serving president, after more than two decades of fruitful collaboration with a team that has created a national model for business development resources serving entrepreneurs of color.
Growing up in the British-ruled colony of Hong Kong, an awareness of discrimination came early, Cheung Ho remembers.
“My father had degrees from the University of Hong Kong and a degree in Public Administration from the University of Edinburgh, and was a stellar performer at the Department of Health in the Hong Kong government, but he never had the top spot, simply because he was a Hong Kong Chinese,” she remembers. “As Chinese, we had economic, but not political freedom,” she said.
Cheung Ho moved to the Twin Cities to further her education in the early 1970s, shortly after Meda was established. After earning a Business Administration degree from the Carlson School of Management, she worked for IBM and Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo & Co.). After the birth of her son she established two home-based businesses, giving her a taste for entrepreneurship. When in 1993 she took a job as director of business development programs at Meda, she quickly grew aware of the challenges to minority business owners: access to financing, market opportunities and technical assistance all were in short supply. Over the next 20 years, she has led the charge to level the playing field through her work at Meda.
Cheung Ho’s approach has been highly strategic from day one, job one: diversifying the organization’s revenue streams. When she started at Meda, 70% of its budget was from corporate support. Today, it’s about 33%. The rest of its revenue comes from foundation grants, government contracts and events.
Meda also takes a strategic approach to building relationships between minority businesses and more established corporations.
“It’s not like speed dating, the way we do it. It is deliberate and intentional,” she said.
Meda launched its Construction Partnering Program (CPP) in 1996 to bring MBEs and majority corporations together to build long-term relationships and expose small minority partners to the practices of experienced industry leaders. As one example, Kraus-Anderson partners with WMBE Reiling Construction. Together, KA and Reiling have worked together on projects including Regions Hospital, University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital, and Cabela’s retail projects in Fort Worth, Texas and Boston, Massachusetts.
Expanding market opportunities is another primary focus of Meda. In 2003, Cheung Ho was instrumental in saving the Minnesota Procurement Technical Assistance Center (MNPTAC), after it lost its state funding. Now a program of Meda, MNPTAC works its mission of strengthening the Minnesota economy by offering assistance to any Minnesota business, not just minority, in pursuing government contracts.
In 2011 Meda launched two Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) centers in partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Minnesota MBDA works to build strategic alliances among minority enterprises, majority corporations, and local, state and federal government agencies.
Meda also opened the first federal procurement MBDA center in Washington, D.C., beginning its outreach nationwide. The Washington, D.C. MBDA specializes in connecting high capacity, MBEs with federal contract opportunities.
Meda has also made great strides in opening up access to financing. During Cheung Ho’s time at Meda, the organization has tripled its loan capital available to clients, becoming a certified Community Development Financial Institution by the Department of the Treasury.
Now in its 43th year, Meda continues to grow and evolve to meet changing demands.
One of its newest initiatives is the Meda 100, designed to build long-term relationships with high-potential minority businesses to nurture further growth. The organization is also now working with larger minority businesses, helping them build on their success.
Meda’s staff has doubled in size during Cheung Ho’s tenure, to now two dozen. Meda consultants offer one-on-one business consulting, training, leadership development, government contracting assistance, access to financing, networking with peers, assistance with minority certifications, strategic planning, and more.
2013 was a great year for Meda and its clients. The organization served 1,604 clients, providing $1.2 billion in total value of contracts through all Meda programs and securing $39 million in financing through its loan fund, managed funds and leveraged fund programs. Both the MBDA Federal Procurement Center and the Minneapolis MBDA Business Center surpassed their annual goals and received “Outstanding” rankings from the federal MBDA. And MNPTAC assisted in securing government contracts totaling $561 million for Minnesota businesses, including $107 million awarded to entrepreneurs of color.
Again and again, Meda has demonstrated the domino effect of helping to launch and grow businesses, which become engines for generating new jobs with solid incomes, creating stable families, and serving to narrow economic and racial disparities in the community. The results, in turn, feed the momentum of Meda. In May of this year, Meda was recipient of a $250,000 grant from the Surdna Foundation to fund programs and services over the next two years.
Though she is retiring, the job isn’t done, says Cheung Ho. There is still plenty of work to be done.
“We’ve come a long way, but the challenges are still there,” she said. “Minnesota is still one of the worst states in the country when it comes to racial disparity.”
“We need to build wealth in the communities of color, and to help these entrepreneurs with scalable businesses to become sustainable employers. That way we can make systemic changes to address economic disparities,” said Yvonne Cheung Ho.
A prime example is Jashan Eison, who has used every program and service that Meda offers. As an employee at H&B Elevator, Eison set his sights on buying the company. He turned to Meda for assistance in a complicated acquisition that included inventory valuation, equipment leases, capital injection, unusual lending terms, more than $5 million in financing, and a move of the company. Today, H&B is the only African American-owned manufacturer of elevator cabs and entrances in the nation, working on projects ranging from local hotels to skyscrapers in Dubai.
“I truly appreciate Yvonne’s commitment in helping support enterprise companies like H&B Elevators,” Eison said. “Meda has been and still is instrumental in my success as an entrepreneur of color.”
“It’s addictive work,” said Cheung Ho. “It’s exciting working with entrepreneurs…they make it happen. We’re the cheerleaders, the coach, we help them gain access to the resources they need. But it’s their determination and hard work that makes it a success, and sustainable,” she said.
Sustainability has been built into Meda itself, and so, while Cheung Ho’s leaving is a milestone, it will not be a millstone.
“Yvonne’s vision and leadership at Meda have been instrumental, and her successor will have a strong base and an excellent staff to build from,” said Bruce Engelsma, Kraus-Anderson Companies chairman and a Meda board member for eight years. “For Yvonne, it’s never been about the glory, it’s about supporting the mission.”
“This is the right timing,” said Cheung Ho. “We have a solid foundation, an incredible team, an engaged board of directors. Now it’s time for a new leader to move this to the next level.”