Black Business Is Not Dead

A few months ago, Crain’s Chicago Business published, “Why Chicago’s History of Black Business Success is Fading.” Being black, a longtime Chicago resident and a minority business enterprise consultant, this article personally affected me.

The early black business leaders who started and grew multimillion-dollar businesses inspired and motivated me to start my firm in the 1970s. They were pioneers working with and for the black community. Some of the most prominent entrepreneurs were:

  • Truman Gibson Sr., who started Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co. and hired John Johnson for his first job in Chicago.
  • John Johnson, who started Johnson Publishing Co. and later bought Supreme Liberty.
  • George and Joan Johnson, who started Johnson Products Co.
  • John Sengstacke, who inherited Sengstacke Enterprises, which owned newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and Michigan Chronicle, among others.

These entrepreneurs were well-respected in Chicago and across the nation. As a child on the South Side of Chicago, I would attend the Bud Billiken Parade created by Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender. I saw several U.S. presidents participate, and felt great pride for my community and race. These entrepreneurs were giants, and Chicago was their home.
However, the black community has not done much to stand on the shoulders of these giants. There are several reasons why today’s and tomorrow’s leaders may not be plentiful:

  • There were not enough minorities in corporate leadership positions and on corporate boards.
  • Blacks were not included in the lucrative, fast-growing segments of our economy.
  • Large, mainstream companies now market products to black consumers who seldom rely on black-owned companies for goods and services.
  • There has been a reverse migration of blacks from the Midwest and growing numbers in Southern cities.

Steven Rogers, senior lecturer in general management at Harvard Business School, once said, “It is institutional racism, pure and simple.” Reflecting on what my friend and colleague — and others — offered as reasons for the decline, many of the assertions are valid. Still, these assertions are only elements of an overall problem: As a race, we do not work in a cohesive manner to foster growth in our community.

I do not know if Rogers is correct in saying it is institutional racism or just benign neglect. If it was the former, other ethnic and racial groups would face the same hurdles. However, other groups are moving forward and not backward like blacks. For those in the black community interested in accelerating their economic growth, I would recommend the following:

  • Accept that bias still exists in certain industries, companies and government organizations.
  • Accept that within these same industries, companies and government organizations, there are also strong white change agents who want to help.
  • Any black person with control of a large budget should request minority involvement for projects, goods and services.
  • Every black person on a corporate board should articulate the unique contribution minorities can play in increasing profits and market share.
  • Every prominent black leader or entrepreneur should accept the responsibility to mentor at least 10 young blacks irrespective of educational level.
  • Blacks should dramatically increase giving to historically black colleges and universities, which are a vehicle for black economic growth through civic leadership and research.
  • Blacks should increase the number of strategic partnerships with the black diaspora in the Caribbean and Africa, and with other blacks, Hispanics and women in the U.S.
  • Blacks should support companies that support us.
  • Black elected officials should not accept a lack of wealth, as it creates the problems they aim to address.

The biggest change is for blacks to stop blocking and thwarting the progress of other blacks. The crabs in a barrel concept should not prevail. If we work together, there will be more black business leaders to motivate, inspire and generate a great sense of pride within our communities, cities and race. We can leverage our trillion-dollar purchasing power to effect change.

James H. Lowry is a senior adviser for Boston Consulting Group and inaugural member of the Minority Business Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.