By John Harmon Sr.
While the pandemic has presented economic challenges for everyone, small businesses owned by people of color have been among the hardest hit.
Nationally, the number of active business owners in the United States fell by 22% from February to April 2020 as the pandemic forced businesses to close their doors. But for Black-owned businesses, the devastation ran nearly twice as deep.
The number of active African-American business owners declined 41% and locally, 41% of Black businesses were projected to stay closed resulting from the George Floyd protests last June as well as the continued effects of COVID-19.
This narrative has become the norm across America. It’s time to address this crisis head-on.
The pandemic poured gasoline on a fire that was already smoldering. Businesses operating closest to the margin were most likely to fail as the worst, but shortest, recession in 75 years quickly exacerbated and accelerated existing inequality. There was an outcry for access to capital.
To dig out of this economic hole, minority-owned businesses need support – cash grants, technical resources, accessible loans — to help level the playing field and truly promote equal opportunity.
We need all hands on deck, with local organizations, state and federal government, and the larger corporate community all having critical roles to play.
We already work with several chambers and organizations across the state, including the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, New Jersey Economic Development Authority, New Jersey Bankers Association, and others.
We have established effective partnerships and aligned ourselves with those who have the resources to mitigate the underperformance in the Black community. We’ve partnered with these organizations to offer grants and to drive initiatives to place more people of color on corporate boards, along with corporate citizenship and investments in local communities.
But it requires more, and corporate America has a critical role to play, too.
Last year, many large companies announced meaningful new commitments to combat inequality. For example, Comcast launched the Comcast RISE (Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment) initiative to help minority-owned small businesses navigate the challenges of the pandemic. Through this program, more than 6,700 businesses nationwide have benefited from $60 million in grants, marketing and technology support.
This includes businesses in Essex County like JE&R Auto Repair & Towing who received technology upgrades from Comcast Business, along with Compleat Windows LLC, Johari, Inc. and Just Us Books. Just recently, the company announced a major expansion of Comcast RISE to all women-owned businesses nationwide, furthering its efforts to provide underrepresented small business owners with access to the digital tools and funding they need — and deserve.
Comcast RISE is part of a multi-year, $100 million commitment to fight injustice and inequality that the company announced last summer. Businesses can apply for these resources at any time, at www.comcastrise.com, and recipients will be announced on an ongoing basis.
In addition, other companies like Johnson & Johnson, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) and Bristol Meyers Squibb are connecting with our members and individuals in the community for employment opportunities and support.
I’m excited about this momentum. The Black community has done so much from a historical perspective to contribute to our state and country — but when we need the reciprocity to show our greatness, we sometimes feel overlooked. It’s encouraging to see corporations willing to step in, calm some of the turbulence and help alleviate part of the burden.
It is a critical step in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done. Due to decades of conscious, racist policies, Black and brown businesses are undercapitalized, so corporate support like Comcast’s counts. This type of investment complements the equitable recovery work happening on the front lines of our community and we hope to see it grow. It is the kind of concrete commitment that we need to build on.
With a coordinated effort between the public and private sectors, Black business owners will gain access to the resources they need to thrive and survive. Only then can true transformation occur. The resulting economic landscape will come closer to representing the fair, equitable one we should have built in the first place.
John E. Harmon Sr. is the founder, president & CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
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