The overarching question of the MSR multi-part series on local Black businesses is, “Do Blacks support each other?” During our interviews with many local Black business owners, they told us that they are not members of the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce (MBCC), which describes itself as “an alliance of business leaders and entrepreneurs” whose main vision “is to promote and improve the general welfare, prosperity and inter-connectedness of the community of African descent.”
Avenue Eatery Owner Sammy McDowell said he knows about the chamber but is not a member: “I don’t know what it is all about.”
“If I see what it is…if it’s something good for us to be in, I wouldn’t have no problems at all [being a member],” said South Minneapolis barber Cameron Cook.
“Why I am not a member? I don’t know. I don’t have an excuse,” responded computer store owner Eugene Banks. “There are a lot of organizations that I am not a part of that I should be a part of. I just haven’t had the time to deal with that portion of my business.”
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The MBCC website says it “welcomes anyone who is interested in economic prosperity and in the improvement of our quality of life in Minnesota.”
Barbara Davis, one of the MBCC’s founding members, argues that many Black business owners are not “fully understanding” what the Chamber can do to assist them in their efforts. “I think the Black community expects it to be like other chambers of commerce in promoting a certain part of town or particular region,” she suggests.
The MBCC often deals with two problems, membership and promotion, notes the Ken Davis Products president. “The Chamber always has lacked enough membership support and enough financial support from the community to be able to promote its product and get out there and say, ‘We are the Black Chamber, and this is what we’re doing and what we can offer to you.’”
Current MBCC President Lea Hargett (right) points out that the organization operates on “a zero-sum budget” and admits that the ever-present perception is that the MBCC is nothing more than “a social club.”
“It can be extremely challenging, because I don’t think we have many [Black] people to see the value and the opportunity of the Chamber being a lot more than it can be without them also committing to the Chamber,” explains Hargett. “The Chamber was really focused on networking, but instead of people taking advantage of it and using it as a springboard to make connections for future business opportunities, future customers and future suppliers, they instead criticized us and took jabs at the Chamber saying we were a social organization.”
“If the Chamber can ever get to the point that they can offer start-up loans to be our own SBA [U.S. Small Business Administration]…it might help the small businesses a lot,” believes Davis. She also points out that the organizations needs new blood: “There are not enough people at the Chamber to do the work that needs to be done. They need people, and they need money,” says the longtime business owner.
“The biggest challenge that we all face [as Black business owners] is that we are underutilized,” MSR Publisher-Owner Tracey Williams-Dillard points out. “We don’t have the manpower, and without the manpower it limits the number of things you are able to do because a few are trying to do everything.
“I think the key [is to]…try to build alliances with other organizations that you can come up with a collective thought and be able to work together,” believes Williams-Dillard.
“We have to dispel [the myth] that Black folk cannot do business together,” notes Golden Thyme Owner Michael Wright. “We have this thought: ‘I am not going to see that person do better than me.’ I don’t know why some of us as a people try to undo us as a people.” He adds that Blacks should support Black-owned businesses like “an extended family [member].”
Twin Cities Black Film Festival Founder-Director Natalie Morrow says, “I am a firm believer that in order for Black businesses to thrive, we must support them. I think we don’t have that support, and you will see [Black-owned] businesses close over North or restaurants not having the support in their first two years in order to survive.”
Morrow adds that she personally supports a variety of Black businesses. “Moving forward in the 21st century, we will continue to have entrepreneurs try different ideas and still try to bring commerce to our neighborhood to sustain and support us. Definitely we need a combination [of Black businesses].”
Junita Cathey, who owns Favorable Treats, an online gourmet cookie business, says that finding other Blacks in her line of business in the area “is a luxury for me. I don’t see enough people who look like me, and it is discouraging sometimes.”
McDowell (right) has observed people pass by his North Minneapolis shop “with their McDonald’s bags all day and they don’t even know or stop. Hey, we sell food, sandwiches and smoothies in here — come in here and try us out.”
“Why we don’t [support Black businesses], I still believe it’s just historical,” says Williams-Dillard. “I think it’s part of the whole slavery mentality where we don’t want to build each other up for some reason. Honestly, I don’t understand why we can’t support each other or have a hard time working together, but it pretty much is [that way]. I still don’t understand why this is.
“I really think it is important [to] support your Black businesses, advertise in the Black paper, on Black radio, purchase each other’s products and services — [these are] some ways of supporting each other,” says Williams-Dillard.
Banks says that because the Twin Cities Black community is small compared to other U.S. cities, there should be more solidarity. “If you put a small group of us together and moved us to Mexico, we wouldn’t have any choice but to stick together,” he points out.
Cathey says some Blacks shun Black-owned businesses because of a bad experience with a Black business. But “When people have a bad experience with a beauty shop, there are 15 other ones that you can go and support,” she advises.
Hargett encourages “entrepreneurs and current business owners to be members of [and] invest in” the MBCC. She believes the Chamber could be a good resource for young business owners seeking helpful advice. “That’s where there are resources for them.”
Hargett feels the MBCC is trying “to fulfill the promise that we have, and we want our community to help make it stronger. That’s what we work on every day. You can’t give up, and I don’t think any of us have given up.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.