At the height of his influence in America, during a period of history when lynching was widely used to terrorize and control Black people, a Black man born a slave had the ear of leading industrialists and philanthropists including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and George Eastman.  The same Black man had dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt on Oct. 16, 1901, which sparked outrage across the South and public calls for more Black lives to be taken.  That powerful Black man, who championed economic self reliance for his people while staring down the barrel of white supremacy, terrorism and Jim Crow, was Booker T. Washington.  

Black Wall Street

Roughly a century before the words “Black Lives Matter” were attached to a social justice movement, Washington promoted group economic empowerment and progress as a formula for elevating Black lives with a goal of greater participation for Black people in America’s economic system.  Washington’s message and vision have endured over time, as witnessed during the spring and summer of 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, when supporters of the emerging social justice movement on all levels cited tangible, significant support of Black-owned businesses as one of the absolutely essential ingredients for healing America.

“For Booker T. Washington, everything started and ended with economic self-reliance,” said Dr. Ken L. Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League, an organization founded by Washington in 1900, which is the country’s first and largest trade association for Black businesses.  “Booker T. Washington needed to work skillfully within the conditions and parameters of his times, but he also was a visionary, and it is not surprising that his program and principles are at the forefront of a Black economic movement today.”     

In the days and weeks immediately following the murder of Floyd, Harris and the National Business League, now based in Detroit, were on a mission to bring additional resources to local Black-owned businesses, which included creating partnerships with the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency, Comerica Bank and American Express to provide access to capital for local entrepreneurs, as racial unrest and the global pandemic swept through America.  

Black entrepreneurs have always been resilient and throughout history Black entrepreneurs have continued to create a significant number of new jobs

Dr. Ken L. Harris

“Going back to the time of Booker T. Washington, the man who coined the term “Negro Wall Street” known today as Black Wall Street, acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riots, Black entrepreneurs have always been resilient and throughout history Black entrepreneurs have continued to create a significant number of new jobs, but now Black businesses need to begin receiving equitable economic benefits for their contribution,” Harris said.  “Therefore, we must not forget the corporate promises that were made last year as a response to Black racial inequalities and the overall message of economic self-reliance for Black people must remain top of mind with measurable accountability.” 

333 Years to Parity

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A passionate, purposeful, call to action centering on empowerment also can be heard from Michelle Sourie Robinson, president and CEO of the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC).  A Detroit-based nonprofit organization “committed to driving economic growth within minority communities,” the MMSDC and its leader have strongly delivered the message that supporting Black and other minority-owned businesses should be a national priority today, now more than ever.  During the organization’s Michigan Minority Procurement Conference in May the MMSDC announced the findings of a study on economic equity for people of color, which reported that at current growth rates it will take 333 years for Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs) to achieve revenue equity with white-owned businesses in our nation. 

“This research makes it crystal clear that the current path is one we cannot continue if we wish to achieve economic equity for people of color in our lifetimes,” Robinson stated. “Corporations who understand that strong communities create strong customers, strong employees and strong neighbors, must re-commit to providing access for MBEs to compete for all aspects of their business. If all corporations grow their MBE spend percentage by 1 percent annually, the timeline to achieve parity would improve from 333 years to 15 years.”

A native of Oklahoma, Robinson says she takes her work and the study personally and talks about wanting to help people of color obtain the type of multigenerational wealth that was robbed from Black people in her home state as a result of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.  

“It would be untenable for my great, great grandchildren’s grandchildren to have to deal with a problem that we have the power to correct today,”

– Michelle Sourie Robinson

“It would be untenable for my great, great grandchildren’s grandchildren to have to deal with a problem that we have the power to correct today,” said Robinson, who points out that achieving parity between Black-owned and white-owned businesses alone would add more than an estimated $290 billion in overall wealth to the American economy.  “Last year we had many leaders of business stand up and speak out about what was going on and that’s exciting.  Now I challenge those leaders to look at their results. The time for rhetoric is over and now is the time to examine results.”  

The study on economic equity for people of color that Robinson reported on at the virtual Michigan Minority Procurement Conference was commissioned by MMSDC and performed by supplier.io inc., a Chicago-based technology company which provides economic impact analysis and other data and services that can be utilized by small businesses and corporate supplier diversity programs.   Within the executive summary of the study are “Path to Parity” recommendations for corporations that would bring about the results that the MMSDC is seeking, sooner rather than later.  These recommendations to corporations include:

  • Consider MBE spending across all categories. Go beyond construction and manufacturing and look into technology and professional services, too;
  • Help create viable pools of MBEs by removing barriers to access. In 2020, Black and Hispanic businesses only received 2.6 percent of all venture funding. Increased access to capital will accelerate revenue growth among certified minority businesses; 
  • Help to train the next generation of minority business owners, giving them the knowledge to one day start their own businesses; and,
  • Incorporate achievable goals and metrics to quantify the corporate benefits of supplier diversity and small business programs. For many years, organizations have promoted the need to support small and diverse businesses, yet most rarely establish an industry-wide project plan to do so.

Robinson expressed genuine optimism that the study’s recommendations to corporations can and will be followed by enough companies to make a difference, in large part because she has already witnessed the impact these best practices have had on some MMSDC-member companies through the years.  And she said that the desired results from “a deliberate and intentional focus on minority firms” from corporations, including the increased creation of businesses and jobs, greater upward mobility, and greater generational wealth, should ultimately be felt directly at the neighborhood, grassroots level.  That declaration hits home for many longtime Detroiters, including Monique Marks, president and CEO of Franklin Wright Settlements, a human service agency which has assisted individuals, families and groups with basic life, family and social needs since 1881.

Marks proudly proclaims that as an organization, Franklin Wright Settlements started social justice in Detroit and remains committed to “taking people from crisis to self-sufficiency.”  She is equally proud of her family’s history—six generations on both her mother and father’s side of the family—all born in Detroit going back to the 1800s.   But a moment in time last year in Minneapolis and what has transpired since continues to disturb her. 

“I felt like what the world witnessed was a 21st century lynching,” said Marks, who still sounds emotionally shaken when asked if the corporate promises made last year following the murder of Floyd have helped people touched by her agency in Detroit. “I was expecting a greater impact afterwards.  I thought there would be more support for Black businesses and that more resources would become available to the community, but I have not seen that yet…I had a euphoric moment for about a week after the conviction (of Derek Chauvin) and thought we were about to have a rebirth of our nation, but then there continued to be lynchings and our community and neighborhoods are still waiting for change.” 

With Marks, there is no finger pointing in terms of who should be doing more to help the community she loves.  In fact, she is quick to express her gratitude for philanthropic assistance Franklin Wright Settlements has received during the past 12 turbulent months, citing support from BET, the United Way and the Skillman Foundation as examples.  However, she cautions that if both social and economic inequalities are not immediately addressed a most precious resource—our youth—could be lost.  

“Organizations like Franklin Wright Settlements say to our youth, “hey guys, participate in our programs, go to college, and the life you want is the life you can have,” said Marks, who also points out that her agency was the first public advocate for youth in Detroit.  “But our young people are smart and they see what is going on, and I fear they are becoming less tolerant.  It’s becoming more difficult to encourage our youth, so they need to see from our society that Black and Brown lives do matter and they need to see support for our community at the same time.”

To access the full research findings of the study cited in this article, please visit minoritysupplier.org/333-years/.

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