Mfume: minority, women entrepreneurs must connect to ‘economic wheel’

Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and past president of the NAACP, contends that the private sector has a basic, but critical, role to play in growing and strengthening the minority business sector. Find ways to connect minority-owned and women-owned entrepreneurs to the market-driven “economic wheel” of American commerce, he urges.

That “wheel” is in place and will work if the private sector actively seeks and engages minority and women entrepreneurs as vendors and partners, Mfume told a Center Club audience of 160 at the GBC’s March 29 Bridging the Gap conference, “Expand Your Business Opportunities.”

Mfume was the keynote speaker at the conference. The event, co-hosted by the GBC and Deloitte and sponsored by M&T Bank, also included a panel discussion emceed by City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who is the marketing manager for small business at Abrams, Foster, Nole and Williams.

Panelists were Gary Harkness, vice president of Whiting-Turner Contracting Company; Kevin Johnson, president and owner of Commercial Interiors, Inc.; Gary Sutula, senior vice president, Vertis Communications; and Robert L. Wallace, president and CEO of BITHGROUP Technologies.

“We want the next generation of entrepreneurs to function in an enlightened kind of environment where many of the struggles that were fought long ago don’t have to be fought all over again,” said Mfume. Those entrepreneurs can grow their market share and solidify their businesses without having to force the government to recreate the “economic wheel.”

In today’s environment there are no guideposts and there is very little room for error for black, Latin, Asian, or women entrepreneurs, said Mfume. Many who have made it know all too well that often there was no “good old boy or girl network” that embraced and welcomed them in and made it easy. If anything, the “network” worked against them, he said.

Despite recent improvements in the growth of the economy and in economic productivity, the challenge to overcome economic and racial inequalities still exists. Although the best social program is a job — jobs are not enough, Mfume said. Full employment was never the legitimate goal of the civil rights movement. The goal was full development.

The greatest support system in a free-market economy should be for entrepreneurial pursuits. Many minority entrepreneurs “have been left to the benevolence of an unforgiving marketplace,” he said.

Support could come in many forms, ranging from large, majority businesses actively working to cultivate minority-owned vendors and business partners to alleviating the lender practice of assessing unfair risk to businesses simply because they are minority-owned or women-owned. More support could encompass finding a way to do away with unfair bonding and capitalization requirements for minority-owned firms that are based on arbitrary or subjective data. The minority business community needs to advocate for “one set of rules,” said Mfume.

The role for the government is to protect and enforce set asides where they exist in law, said Mfume. It doesn’t mean anything to have a law in the book if it’s not enforced. There also needs to be a periodical validation of MBE status and certification. The government should institute an “Urban Marshall Plan” that will provide tax credits for long term investments by larger businesses and tax credits for small businesses, start ups and those that want to expand, he said.

Businesses need to look beyond their traditional lists and cultivate opportunities to do business with others. Maryland is still economically a very vibrant state, so people should be optimistic about the possibilities in Baltimore and Maryland. “We need to try to find a way to create a tide that lifts all boats and when we do that, we are so much better as a society,” Mfume said.

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