Challenges, chances await minority businesses
By Celeste Smith | The Charlotte Observer
Ron Busby, president of the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce, is keynote speaker at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce’s second annual awards gala on Saturday.
Honorees of the year will include a chamber member, a small business and a “small business influencer” who brings businesses together for networking. The event happens at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.
Busby, 54, heads the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that represents more than 110 chambers in 22 states.
As president, Busby focuses on five “pillars of service” – advocacy, helping black businesses access capital, entrepreneur training, helping members win contracts and boosting the membership of black chambers. They’re priorities Busby said he appreciated as a former small-business owner and corporate executive.
He talked to the Observer Wednesday about what he’ll discuss in his speech Saturday, and about some of the biggest issues facing black businesses. His comments have been edited for brevity.
Q: Are there some notable developments this year involving black chamber members that deserve attention?
African-Americans are the fastest-growing segment of small-business owners. That’s kind of good news/bad news. The excitement came because we finally were first place in a category that’s on the good side. But now you have African-Americans with good middle- and senior-level positions in corporate America forced into being their own boss, not because of choice, but because of layoffs and downsizing. They’re doing basically what they were doing before, without the safety net of a 401(k) or health care. A lot of them are out here living off of what they earned in their previous lives, and they don’t have the skills to be entrepreneurs. We have to give them the resources and the training.
Q: How has uncertainty about the “fiscal cliff” and its potential impact on the economy affected small and black-owned businesses?
The small firms are kind of in limbo. And even those firms that have potential are going to see what happens. … The awarding of new contracts will definitely affect the African-American community. We do a large percentage of our work with government agencies. … In an economy where the safe decision is never questioned, the decision to go with a black firm, or a small firm, or a minority firm is always going to be scrutinized a little bit more.
Q: How has the chamber helped black-owned businesses access capital?
The federal government has been notorious for paying vendors late. When President Obama said the government can pay its vendors sooner, we got behind that. We were successful in getting the government terms changed (to shorter waits for pay). It’s a way to deal with the access to capital in a nontraditional method. Vendors now have a cash flow which will allow them to stay in business.
Q: What message do chamber members need to hear now?
Work on your business as much as working in it. The difference between an entrepreneur and a small-business owner is: An entrepreneur is really trying to build a business, and is looking over the horizon all the time figuring out how to get there, whereas a small-business owner is a former employee doing what they’ve done before. … We get up each morning trying to figure out, “Where is the fire I’m trying to address today?” We never really spend the quality time thinking, “Where do I need to be in 2015, 2016?”
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