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A Better Way: Redesigning Black Entrepreneurship

Thu, Mar 1, 2012

The DuSable Museum's recent panel on Black Entrepreneurship included from left, James Lowry, Steven Rogers, Patricia Hanes and John W. Rogers Jr.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Black unemployment is close to 14 percent in comparison to the national rate of 8.3 percent. And though solution seekers point to earning a solid education and obtaining more job training as viable ways to curb unemployment, many people also are promoting entrepreneurship as a means of saving themselves—and the Black community at-large.

To further explore the topic, a panel of Chicago Black entrepreneurs and business leaders led a panel discussion focused on the state of the Black community and Black business. Filling the DuSable Museum reception and auditorium were community folks, business owners, politicians and students—including a group representing Chicago State University. Panelists shared their business best practices with audience listeners—and the audience provided real-time feedback in an open forum.

The event moderator, William A. “Bill” Lowry, said that despite what the media portrays, Blacks can become entrepreneurs. Yet, he admitted, entrepreneurial efforts demand innovative approaches. “We [Blacks] need to take an inter-generational approach,” suggested Lowry, who is managing partner at Nyhan, Bambrick, Kinzie & Lowry, P.C. “We need to work together in our community to be that village that we talk about….Our family must extend beyond the walls of our apartments and homes.”

Lowry’s commitment to mentoring and serving youth includes his service on several civic and professional boards geared towards children and educational causes. He shared, “It’s incumbent on African American men to not only raise our own kids but help be a mentor to other kids. In some situations, I [we] may be the only male model they see…”

Bill Lowry’s family includes generational entrepreneurs. His wife C.D. Watson-Lowry works at a family owned dental office located on Chicago’s South Side. And, Lowry’s uncle, James Lowry, is an entrepreneur, Harvard MBA graduate and Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management adjunct faculty member; James Lowry also served on the DuSable panel.

On assignment from a former U.S. commerce secretary, he compiled a report ont he status of minorities in the 21st century that attracted the attention of PepsiCo and Ford, according to his HistoryMakers bio. His partnership with Ford led to $3 billion in outsourcing to 300 minority suppliers.

Additional panelists included: Steven “Steve” Rogers, Kellogg School of Management Professor of Entrepreneurship; Patricia Hanes, regional director of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Minority Business Development Agency; John W. Rogers Jr., Woodrow Wilson Awardee and chairman & CEO of Ariel Investments.

Black Business in 1970s and 1980s
J. Chapple holds a master’s degree in independent film and digital imaging. He works at a local commercial TV station in operations, and he also runs a videography business. “True economic freedom hinges on being able to produce, manufacture and or distribute a product or service,” Chapple said. “You won’t get rich from working a job.”

Amassing wealth, added Chapple, isn’t the only end-goal. “Security, happiness, independence…these [too] are goals. Being a business owner means controlling your own destiny.”

Chapple, along with many Chicagoans during the 1970s and 1980s, witnessed the height of Black entrepreneurship. Black businesses were bountiful in Chapple’s South Side working class Roseland community. Restaurants, clothing stores and a hardware store were community staples. Also, he fondly recalls how for several years his family purchased pets and supplies from a local pet store. Eventually, a non-Black owned clothing shop set up shop in the store’s space; these types of displacements swiftly swept throughout other bustling Black business communities such as Chatham, Englewood and Bronzeville.

Pinpointing what went wrong with Chicago Black businesses – and Black businesses nationally – is a layered undertaking. Here are a few thoughts: Some theorists refer back to the 1980s crack epidemic, which weakened many Black families—financially and otherwise. The insurgence of gang violence and gang related crimes are to blame according to some people. Meanwhile, other Chicagoans say the city’s political landscape fostered a continual fracture in business operations.

And while Chapple admitted being too young to grasp the impact of his community-business closings, he now has his own theory behind what caused the downward spiral of Black businesses. Today, he described the change as a “transition to mass-consumerism.” He further explained, “You see the neighborhood stores shut-down. Then you go to the mall to shop, and then you have the big box stores. Now, people just shop online.”

Signs of the Times
It’s ripe time for Blacks to embrace e-commerce and other innovative business and marketing ideas, said Charles Mombo, founder and managing director of WW.CLICK.COM, Inc. Electronic Commerce, regularly referred to as e-commerce, mainly describes buying and selling products or services through the Internet and other computer networks. And, once an e-commerce website is set-up, perhaps, tap into non-traditional marketing techniques.

To further explain, Mombo referenced his Chicago-based social media marketing and search agent optimization consulting firm as a smart idea for small business owners. Mombo shared, “The internet is a level-playing field. Most people can create the best website with flash players, but it doesn’t matter if customers can’t find you. You want to optimize your products’ and services’ keywords.”

DuSable panelist James Lowry, also talked about the importance of innovation—and the need for Blacks to lend support to existing and emerging Black business owners. Citing his personal commitment, recently he provided funding to Black entrepreneurs whom were seeking financial support for an online education business idea. (Additionally, James Lowry is the co-author of Minority Business Success: Refocusing on the American Dream.)

Building Blocks
The panelists differentiated between high-growth and lifestyle entrepreneurship. High-growth entrepreneurs, normally, start their business with the intent to grow their wealth and business. Lifestyle entrepreneurs, however, often place passion before profit when starting a business. They don’t necessarily create strategic plans regarding growing and sustaining their business. And, sometimes, they choose not to expand their business in order to remain in control of their venture.

Knowing the difference between high-growth and lifestyle entrepreneurship, advised panelist Steven “Steve” Rogers, makes all the difference. Prior to joining the Kellogg faculty, Rogers owned and operated two manufacturing firms and a retail operation. Business Week named him one of the top 12 entrepreneurship profs in the nation in 1996. He is the author of several books including The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Finance and Business: Wealth Creation Techniques for Growing a Business. While he grew up in Englewood with a mother who was a lifestyle entrepreneur, he implores his MBA students to pursue high-growth entrepreneurship. He explained, “The only way we can make them [students] think and act like high-growth entrepreneurs, instead of lifestyle entrepreneurs, is to teach them. You can’t be what you’ve never seen or ever heard of.”

Agreeing with Steve Rogers’ lead-by-example philosophy is John W. Rogers Jr., Chairman & CEO of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm. John’s firm partnered with Chicago Public Schools in the mid-1990s and launched Ariel Community Academy, located on the South Side. Starting in the kindergarten, students at the K-8 public school are taught financial literacy. John admits businesses fail due to discrimination, racism and a lack of customers and or capital. (And then there’s the societal transition to mass-consumerism as mentioned, earlier, by J. Chapple.) However, many times, business failures occur due to a weak infrastructure.

John further explained, “Sometimes, we don’t have all the building blocks…all the things we need to know about how to sustain and grow a building for the long haul. We think by teaching financial literacy within our public schools, we’ll be able to create the kind of framework so the next generation of entrepreneurs will have all the tools it needs to build successful enterprises.”

Hold your Nose and Jump!
Charles Mombo, founder and managing director of WWCLICK.COM, Inc. said it’s crucial to do one’s due diligence in order to run a successful business—at whatever capacity desired. Additionally, although he holds two masters’ degrees, he doesn’t believe a formal education equates to business success. Perhaps, he added, it’s more important for budding and existing entrepreneurs to simply avoid fear—at all costs. Mombo referenced his teen daughter who approached him about starting an e-commerce business. She asked him to register a domain for her designs for kids. Her concept is to buy blue jeans for her age group and sell them online.

Mombo described, “Every business doesn’t have to start with $10,000. Anyone can start an online business. Business owners don’t always have to have an [extensive] inventory. Owners can shop for items on an at-need base… You have to take calculated risks.”

Finally, don’t underestimate the value in using soft skills and planning strategically, suggested panelist and Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Minority Business Development Agency South East Region, Patricia Hanes. Applauding her agency, she concluded, “We’ve taken a $30 million budget and turned it to $4 billion in contracts and financing for minority owned businesses in 2011…That is not by accident. It takes hard work, strategic partnerships and relationships and management. Those are the things that it takes to grow any business.”

Written by Temple Hemphill
StreetWise Contributor


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