Soon after Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country, requests for a directory of Black-owned businesses started flowing into the office of the Harrisburg-based African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania.
The protests sparked a greater conversation about systemic racism in the U.S., and in the business community. Locally, company leaders began to talk about how to support the region’s Black-owned businesses, which were hit particularly hard by the loss of customers after the statewide quarantine in March.
The African American Chamber has stepped up to the challenge left to them by the pandemic by focusing on getting loan and grant funding for its members.
The broader business community is looking to help where it can after gaining a greater understanding for the uphill battle their Black colleagues face. It was the mixture of both the BLM protests and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that led businesses to the African American Chamber’s door.
While the prospect of creating a path for its members to become part of the supply chain for much larger companies was an appealing one, Leland Nelson, the chamber’s president, said he has been wary of knee jerk reactions.
“We need to hold people accountable internally and see what gets measured,” Nelson said. “If they want a list, I will follow up to see what happened. I don’t want to go and just do the work and nothing comes out of it.”
The African American Chamber has a membership of about 60 and a potential membership list of another 100 microenterprises. In recent years, the chamber has focused its efforts on offering resources to startup and early-stage Black businesses with events like its annual “Build Your Business Boot Camp.”
The chamber’s success as a one-stop-shop for budding entrepreneurs has made it more of a community good than a members-only service.
“We try to sit down with anyone coming through our office and we ask them what will help you take the next step,” he said. “Number one is access to capital, number two is connecting them to decision makers.”
Aside from working with area businesses to expand their relationships with the region’s Black-owned businesses, the chamber started offering members assistance with state grants and loans after the pandemic closed operations for months.
David Dix, a member of the chamber’s Board of Directors and Chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on African American Affairs, said the chamber’s shift to helping established Black-owned businesses tap into programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, marks a change in the kind of businesses the chamber can reach through its services.
“For the last two years, the chamber focused really on supporting a business framework for startup or new businesses,” said Dix, founder of Harrisburg-based consulting firm LuminousStrategies. “For businesses like my own, that are 10 years old, there was a call to say yes that’s important but what do we do for businesses sustaining by a thread and in need of support?”
At the end of June, the chamber partnered with the Harrisburg Regional Chamber to identify and support Black business owners as they applied for $100 million in grant funding through the state’s Historically Disadvantaged Business Revitalization program. The program was part of a $225 million COVID-19 Relief Statewide Small Business Grant program that Wolf announced in early June.
Together with the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, the African American Chamber walked businesses through the process and connected them with one of the state’s 17 Community Development Financial Institutions to apply.
Dix referred to the partnership as unprecedented, adding that the experience helped set best programmatic practices for the African American Chamber as it looks toward expanding into offering grant programming and loan programing in the future.
The Harrisburg Regional Chamber’s work with the African American Chamber, as well as other plans within the chamber to promote Black businesses and inclusive hiring practices, shows an intention to promote the African American community that Dix said felt different.
“I think David Black (Harrisburg Regional Chamber president and CEO) has done more in the last two months than any entity has done in the last two years,” he said. “It’s the ability for them to come out of their circles, reach across and say there is a problem and commit their institution to fix it.”
The Harrisburg Chamber recently created an internal task force as part of a long-term commitment to target systemic racism in the midstate and intends to use other chamber resources, such as its Business & Education Partnership Committee, to provide career opportunities for young Black people to combat systemic racial injustice in the education system.
The chamber’s recent focus on systemic racism is not just checking a box, according to Black, who said that recent events such as the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, was a wakeup call for both the chamber and its members.
“In the past 20 years, our organization has done a lot in terms of inclusion and diversity, but we never focused, and I don’t think many organizations focused, on some of the root causes– the racism that’s baked into society,” he said. “This isn’t a simple problem and it’s something that will take a long while to get fixed but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it just because it’s tough.”
According to 2019 population estimates from the United States Census Bureau, Harrisburg’s population of more than 49,000 is nearly 52% Black or African American, 34% White, 22% Hispanic or Latino and 5.4% Asian.
Despite being a majority Black city, Dix argued that there hasn’t been a supportive environment for Black-owned businesses to prosper in the city. For a region as diverse as the Harrisburg area, it should be surprising that no bank, credit union or financial institution has an African American on its board of directors, he said.
“Working together, collaborating, getting some successes and getting capital into these businesses will lead into having the type of integrated relationships we need for banks to see that value.”
The African American Chamber has also felt that lack of support when it comes to donations from corporate partners. In the past, Nelson said, the chamber’s partners have donated $1,000 when they would donate upwards of $50,000 to other larger chambers.
“I had to tell some corporate partners that I don’t want their money,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want businesses to donate $1,000 for a photo opportunity with the chamber. For that reason, the chamber has put a minimum limit of $5,000 for a corporate partnership.
“If we bargain for a nickel, they won’t give us more,” Nelson said. “My board doesn’t like it but what are we telling people? That we are worth only $1,000?”
For Dix, expanding business opportunities for Black-owned businesses in the midstate isn’t about moving mountains. “Both of these sets of crises are an opportunity to check our biases at the door,” he said. “What is the community we want to get out of this and how do we build towards that?”
The chamber expects to continue to grow as a resource for businesses to find loan and grant opportunities and will be looking at expanding into offering Minority-Owned Business Enterprise Certifications in the future.