COLOGNE – The Capital Region Chamber has launched an initiative to help minority-owned businesses and increase diversity, equity and inclusion in other businesses.
The effort, backed by $1.5 million in support from multiple organizations, seeks to open the doors of opportunity to a broader segment of the population.
But sometimes that’s not enough, the effort’s leaders said Thursday at its official launch. To extend the metaphor, some members of the Black/Indigenous/People Of Color community need help finding the door or knowing what to do once they walk through it. And some may not even know the door exists.
“What you find with BIPOC businesses and especially black businesses, we don’t come from generations of family members who own businesses for them to guide us,” said Danielle Davis, who joined the Chamber in May as its director. of BIPOC business growth.
“The obstacles are not necessarily, ‘No, you can’t go here,’ but not knowing that you CAN go here,” she said. “We’re starting from a lower level.”
The Chamber’s four-year initiative, Accelerating Inclusive Economic Opportunity, is supported by $1.5 million in funding from Business for Good, CDPHP and the KeyBank Foundation.
It will provide no-cost business growth assistance to BIPOC-owned enterprises and support practices within the larger business community that will be raising capital.
President and CEO Mark Eagan said the Chamber is often viewed as a business development organization for its 2,700 member businesses and their 150,000 employees. But the success of these businesses depends on the overall health of the community, and the health of a community depends in no small part on all members of that community having equal access to opportunity.
“That’s really the foundation for all the work, all the things that the Chamber and our affiliate the Center for Economic Growth work on,” Eagan said.
As the Chamber looked for ways to promote equality, Eagan said, it found companies that wanted to be part of the effort but didn’t know where to start.
To help them make the connections, the Chamber added Jason Benitez as vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion; brought to Davis; and this week launched this initiative.
Benitez and others talked about equity as the key component: Diversity and inclusion are relatively easy to achieve in a diverse community, but equity requires more effort to actively identify and remove barriers. Benitez called it a journey, continuous and purposeful.
“This funding allows us to do that,” he told the effort’s sponsors.
Davis recalled her experiences running a Jamaican restaurant in Albany.
“As an entrepreneur myself, I know first-hand the difficulties and obstacles small businesses face,” she said. “Trying to do everything myself, as I found out, and not using the resources that are available can lead to poor mistakes and eventual failure. Some may not want to admit it, but the road for BIPOC businesses in particular is tough.”
The challenges of traveling alone on the road gave Davis the desire to change the landscape and support others to make their own path.
“If BIPOC businesses succeed, our community will succeed,” she said, noting the high failure rate of black-owned businesses. Meanwhile, she said, Latino business ownership is showing the fastest rate of growth of any demographic group in America, but still faces problems accessing capital.
Davis is reaching out to the BIPOC business community to spread the word about the new initiative.
“What I’ve been doing is calling businesses, actually going out and meeting with entrepreneurs,” she said, because many small business owners can’t close up shop to get in.
Networking and guidance from people like Ron Gardner, Schenectady’s affirmative action officer, are especially valuable.
“That’s how it went, word of mouth,” she said.
Jahkeen Hoke, CEO of Business For Good, called his organization’s support an investment in the region’s ecosystem. “We need more people at the table and we need more people willing to see this as a model and take it as far as we can.”
Dr. John Bennett, president and CEO of CDPHP, said the health plan is investing heavily in health equity and health education. He sees this Chamber initiative as an extension of that. “We have the opportunity to really impact lives … in the broader context of health, the social determinants of health,” he said.
Tamika Otis, KeyBank’s Capital Region corporate responsibility officer, said some people don’t understand the historical context that continues to create barriers to equality.
“That’s what’s so great about this program, it’s all taken into consideration, and then bringing in someone who shares a lived experience with the people we’re looking to serve and support helps to bring the results we seek.” she said.
Barriers to equality still exist today, but are mostly more subtle now than they were a few generations ago, Otis said. “What’s nice is the awareness of that now. We’re no longer afraid to call a thing a thing, and then actively work collectively to fight some of those inequitable systems that have been created over the years.”
The initiative to help BIPOC-owned businesses will include one-on-one engagement, resource linkage, funding for expert consultation, presentations and networking events, educational sessions and skill-building classes, professional development through a free membership one year in the Chamber and assistance in obtaining state certification as a minority/woman-owned business.
To help other businesses build diversity, equity and inclusion, the Chamber is promoting the moral and economic benefits of DEI practices, offering workshops and training, connecting employers and potential employees, providing referral resources, providing resources and guidance to advance DEI practices and by providing marketing. /achievement to attract and retain a diverse workforce.
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