50 years on, the business community still lags behind

Tony Fischer Photography via flickr
August 28, 2013

All this week, we’re acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march in Washington, and the Innovation Trail reporting project is gathering voices from African-American business owners across the region.

“If we look back just 50 to 60 years ago what we found were a lot of African American businesses that were very, very successful. We had African American grocery stores, we had numerous banks that were owned by African Americans that primarily served the African American community. And if we compare that to today, those numbers have dwindled significantly.”

Delmonize Smith is the director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship in Rochester.

He says, half a century after hundreds of thousands of people marched on Washington to fight for civil and economic equality we’ve made a lot of progress, but the business community is still catching up.

“We know there are significant disparities when it comes to the number of African American businesses, specifically when we talk about businesses that hire people.”

In Rochester, Smith says, those disparities translate to only 4 percent of businesses that hire employees being African American owned and run.

And it’s a similar story elsewhere.

What it comes down to, Smith says, is a shift away from the traditional model where African American businesses could grow by catering to African American communities.

Additionally, he says, policies that try to create a level playing field, encouraging financial institutions to lend to African American business owners, aren’t always effective.

“There’s not a higher rate of lending to African American business owners because banks for example by the nature of their business are risk adverse, and we know that the realities show that in our African American population things such as wealth, things such as credit are challenges.”

Realtor Carm Diamond has first-hand experience with such challenges.

She’s been in the Real Estate game for close to a decade and she’s still struggling to find the capital to set up her own operation.

“Even to this day it’s a struggle. And you know, you hear about small businesses, we need money pumped into small businesses that’s going to re-build the economy, let’s do it. And you would think ok, hooray, I’ve been in this business nine plus years, somebody’s going to be willing to give me a loan.”

Diamond says she’s re-worked her business plan many times trying to attract support, but at the end of the day she doesn’t have a credit history she can take to the banks.

“Here I am, being a realtor for nine plus years, and I still have yet to get the funding that I need for my business and everyone keeps telling me the money’s out there, go get it, you’re black and you’re minority, there’s money for you, it’s just much easier said than done.”

Director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship, Delmonize Smith, says it’s imperative for upstate cities to invest in businesses like Diamond’s if they want to revitalize their urban economies.

“If you are really trying to revitalize the region and use entrepreneurship as a way to revitalize that region, but yet you do not include the African American community in that, it’s an uphill battle.”

Luckily, Smith says, the entrepreneurial space provides a perfect platform for the breakdown of remaining barriers in the civil rights movement.

He says, at the end of the day the business sector has the opportunity to become the ultimate equalizer.

In an environment that fosters innovation and change, Smith says the focus will shift - if you have a quality product that consumers want, your background and the color of your skin won’t matter.