CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Overlooked small business owners are questioning a "game-changing" set of paydays the City of Charlotte awarded to a relatively new talent coach during the pandemic without giving others an equal shot. In response to WCNC Charlotte's reporting, the mayor is now asking the city manager to get involved.
A WCNC Charlotte investigation found the city has relied on a business called Evolyoution, owned by Tori Stevens, for coaching and team building since early 2020.
Public records identified $417,000 worth of work purchased by the city in smaller increments over the course of more than two-and-a-half years. That work included Stevens' job as internal consultant for the city's Corridors of Opportunity project, which is part of the Mayor's Racial Equity Initiative.
"Is that fair?"
Stevens, who state filings show formed her company in 2018, is not a certified vendor in the City of Charlotte's Minority, Woman and Small Business Enterprises program. While not required, the city has encouraged qualified companies to certify as part of its inclusion efforts.
Fellow leadership coaches Cayme Andrea and Nicole Smith both went through the effort of certifying as MWSBEs during the pandemic, records show.
"We have already proven our support with those residents that live in that opportunity corridor. We are qualified and we didn't have an opportunity," Andrea, CEO of Catalyst Global, said. "That is the thing that upsets me and disappoints me and I know I’m not the only one."
Neither knew of the government work until WCNC Charlotte's discovery.
"It's baffling and overwhelming," Smith, CEO of JMS Creative Leadership Solutions, said. "To follow all the rules that I have followed to be able to say, 'Hey, City of Charlotte. I'm here. I'm here to do the work,' and then to know that someone else didn't have to follow those same rules, you ask yourself, 'Is that fair?'"
Started with a viewer tip
WCNC Charlotte first started asking questions about Evolyoution earlier this year after a tip revealed a February 2021 Facebook post, now hidden from public view, that showed Stevens on a boat with a handful of people, including one of the city's assistant economic development directors. That top city executive is also listed as bridesmaid in Stevens' upcoming wedding.
Public records later showed the city's Economic Development Department benefited the most from Stevens' leadership development training.
"When the Economic Development department entered into its first contract with Tori Stevens, staff interviewed multiple service providers," the City of Charlotte told WCNC Charlotte in an email. "Assistant Director Holly Eskridge was not involved in the interviews of those service providers or the evaluation process that led to Ms. Stevens being retained."
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Assistant City Manager and Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson does not dispute her assistant director’s friendship with Stevens, but told WCNC Charlotte other team members within the department originally selected Stevens because she could do both one-on-one and group training.
"How do you justify this work?" WCNC Charlotte asked Dodson.
"So, we went through a process when we looked at hiring Ms. Stevens," Dodson replied.
City considered one other proposal
Dodson said the department considered other firms and ultimately selected the company "we felt was going to work best for economic development." Records show the city only considered two other options before hiring Evolyoution, one of which "was engaged with the city on a similar project and did not submit a formal proposal."
Among Charlotte's three choices, city records show none certified as MWSBEs.
"I'm shocked on a number of levels; shocked that someone thought that was OK," Andrea said. "That could have made or broken some businesses."
Andrea and Smith believe the city could have surely spread the workaround, instead of awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars to one business.
"I just want a piece of the pie. I don't want your pie. I just want a piece of the pie," Smith said. "The City of Charlotte, you speak about diversity, equity, inclusion, now it's time to walk the talk."
Study finds disparities in city contracting
A study commissioned by the city and recently shared with the Charlotte City Council identified disparities within the city's largest contracts over a five-year period, especially for Black-owned businesses.
The work awarded to Evolyoution never made it to the contract or even widespread request for proposal (RFP) stage, city records reveal.
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"The RFP process, in my opinion, makes that process more equitable," Andrea said.
Charlotte's procurement rules require a formal sealed proposal process for professional services costing more than $100,000. Each of Evolyoution's individual purchase orders falls below that threshold.
City of Charlotte defends its choices
"The City has multiple allowable methods for procuring service providers, including the method used to procure and contract with Ms. Stevens," a spokesperson said. "In these instances, staff followed an allowable procurement process for engaging service providers."
Dodson said all of Stevens' work has paid off.
"In hindsight, you feel like that was the right decision [to hire her]?" WCNC Charlotte asked.
"Absolutely," Dodson replied. "I would say our team is much more effective and much more efficient in doing the work out in the community that we're charged with doing."
Dodson said Evolyoution's initial success with economic development led to other work with the city, eventually resulting in her consultant job with the Corridors of Opportunity, which ended in August.
A March 2022 email from Stevens to Corridor partners outlined her approach.
"We want to help create an environment where the CoO program allows internal and external partners to speak their thought-provoking ideas and have solution-oriented conversations to shape a strategy that provides long term results," she wrote. "To do this we will shift the way we work by taking a horizontal and collective approach – think about a ripple effect!"
Dodson said, thanks to Stevens' Corridors of Opportunity coaching, the city "can do more work out in the community more effectively to the parts of our city that need it the most."
Questions of equity
Smith and Andrea question how the city's partnership aligns with the Mayor's Racial Equity Initiative.
"As a woman of color, that representation matters to that community," Smith said. "To have someone that's not of color lead that, it's a lot of questions I have."
In response, the city pointed out Stevens' work was not "front line or community facing."
"As it relates to Corridors of Opportunity, Ms. Stevens was not hired to perform any front line or community facing work," a spokesperson said in an email. "Because of her experience working with multiple departments at the city, several of which directly support the Corridors of Opportunity program, and her expertise in team building, change management and leadership development, Ms. Stevens had the needed experience and expertise to help develop a horizontally integrated internal working team for Corridors of Opportunity."
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"Can you understand why some people feel taken aback by this?" WCNC Charlotte asked Dodson.
"Well, I would say we stand beside the process that we went through on this and of course, nobody wants to miss a business opportunity, but I would also add that we have expanded our business spending that we do with MWSBEs."
Dodson said the city is committed to equity, noting Charlotte spent $188 million last fiscal year hiring certified MWSBE companies, a 15% increase from the previous year. The city also increased spending with minority business enterprises by 38%, a spokesperson said.
"It's not an either-or, but really a both-and," Dodson said.
Mayor, city taking action
In response to WCNC Charlotte's reporting, Mayor Vi Lyles has asked City Manager Marcus Jones to review the process Charlotte uses to award work.
"As successful as we have been as an organization, I do think it’s important to keep in mind that how the work gets done is just as relevant as the work itself," Mayor Lyles said in a statement. "It is important that staff have the autonomy to get work done. Consistency with our procedures and intentions is vital to maintaining the public’s trust. I’ve asked the City Manager to review this process to ensure a balance between outcomes and process."
Council Member LaWana Mayfield shared her disappointment on Twitter.
"We say we have a goal of equity yet daily a member of city leadership staff undermine council goals," Mayfield tweeted."
Charlotte Business INClusion, which oversees the city's MWSBE certification process, emailed a survey to vendors Thursday, just hours after WCNC Charlotte published this story. The survey seeks input about the program's benefits, challenges and areas for improvement. The survey also gauges whether businesses feel the city provides them with applicable opportunities.
WCNC Charlotte offered Stevens the chance to comment for this story, but over the course of two weeks, she did not respond to emails, a phone call, a text or a direct message.
WCNC Charlotte's investigation into Evolyoution's business with the City of Charlotte started with a tip. If you have something you want us to investigate, email email@example.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.