Two years to the date of my first Opinion piece for a publication, I wrote a second piece in response to a Crains special report that I read about Black business in Chicago. The piece explains my frustration with the lack of collaboration, especially among generations and my hope that we can do something soon to change. There is so much power in our communities, and using the talent that’s eager and ready to make a difference, should be a priority. I tried to focus on solutions, because the problems are well-known, especially among those that are on the front lines affecting change.
Black business is fading? Startups and collaboration can be the cure
In 2011, I wrote an op-ed for Crain’s asking African-American leaders to create an ecosystem that fosters more jobs, more startups and more opportunities for our communities. It’s still lacking.
According to Crain’s Nov. 22 in-depth report, “Why Chicago’s history of black business success is fading,” Chicago has its fair share of nationally recognized African-American politicians, entertainers, musicians and athletes. Despite that, the representation of high-growth minority entrepreneurs doesn’t mirror the diversity of the city. Meanwhile, Illinois ranks third in the nation for our disparity between the income of the top 5 percent and the bottom 20 percent of households. There is no evidence suggesting that gap is shrinking.
We need to build an ecosystem if we want to shift the tide of unemployment and underemployment in minority communities, foster minority entrepreneur and unleash innovation.
The time has come for the formation of a minority-oriented Leadership Greater Chicago or New Leaders Council-type program to mold and cultivate future leaders. We need an Asian American Action Fund-like organization to fund, train and empower future public servants. We need an Emily’s List-type organization that holds current elected officials accountable for workforce development, job growth and ensuring that our children have access to a 21st-century education. We need our analogue to the New Orleans Startup Fund, targeting economic growth in communities that need it. Such pipeline programs would create the business climate necessary for the next generation of corporate leadership to better reflect the diversity of the city. The beauty is that we can do this ourselves.
TIME FOR ACTION, TIME TO CONNECT
We have all the tools to create those ecosystems and pipeline programs right now. Illinois features a bevy of elite minority talent. Now we need to put some muscle behind those who are eager and ready to lead. And I’m not referring just to recent graduates of good schools. I’m also referring to the men and women with a commitment to economically empowering our communities.
We live in Chicago, an international city with limitless potential. It’s also the city where 30-year-olds are working McJobs usually reserved for teenagers. A city where youth violence has garnered national attention. A Chicago where, according to Built In Chicago, $265 million in funding was raised in the third quarter of this year for digital startups, while there were $846 million in exits. Despite this inflow and outflow of capital, too few minorities are benefiting.
BLUE1647 is an innovation center where engineers and entrepreneurs build and accelerate their businesses, and the 21st Century Youth Project is a program that teaches technology classes on mobile and web development for youth. This sort of community economic development aims to open doors for those who would otherwise have them slammed in their face while also providing true alternatives to those who may otherwise get caught up in the violence going on in our communities.
We need a new breed of high-growth businesses founded by African-Americans to build a better Chicago. While it’s critical to acknowledge the accomplishments of current minority business owners, we should ensure more minority men and women can join their ranks.
We can do that by nurturing high-growth businesses like local manufacturing, 3D printing and rapid prototyping. We can do that by asking all of the leaders from Crain’s report to embrace intergenerational collaboration and be willing to meet with up-and-coming leaders. We can do that by creating the programs that allow Chicago’s most talented men and women to shine.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
We talk about the work that needs to be done and only few respond. We’ve already established where we are. Yes, rhetoric fills part of the void, and is beneficial for inspiration, but we need the skill, passion and innovation of those willing to do the work required to pick up where others left off. To solve this problem and many others, it is going to take much more effort.
Let’s pair those who have amassed wealth and influence in Chicago with those who need mentorship. I’m envisioning public-private strategic partnerships and sponsorships, workforce development programs for 21st-century jobs and careers, inclusive events and awards ceremonies to celebrate young talent and established enterprises, and an impact fund utilizing those with resources and willingness to affect change.
Can this happen? I’m hopeful it will, and I’m willing to help any way I can.