Black-owned business numbers and mentors offer prescription for report

January 23, 2015
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Grand Rapids’ second-to-last ranking by Forbes.com regarding economic conditions for African-Americans was a “shock wave” in the city, unless you happen to be African-American.

But the news is not the sum of the community. There is much more below the surface that needs attention.

The Forbes report measured three factors, including entrepreneurship. 2011 economic data showed Kent County was home to an 80 percent increase in black-owned businesses. The Economic Census is conducted every five years, and the information was gathered just prior to the start of the Great Recession. That growth outstripped general business growth of 13 percent.

The Business Journal also reported that, among Grand Rapids’ suburbs, there was not enough data on black-owned businesses from 2002 for the census bureau to report, but in 2007, the Economic Census survey showed in Kentwood there were 382 black-owned businesses of a total 4,287 businesses, or 8.9 percent; and in Wyoming, 330 of 5,522, or 5.9 percent. In Kalamazoo County, the number of black-owned businesses grew by 38.7 percent between 2002 and 2007, accounting for 5.9 percent of all businesses. In Muskegon, the number of black-owned businesses in that time period dropped by 22 percent.

The Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce launched in 2011 with a mission to provide networking and address issues specifically affecting its members. In mid-2012, Jamiel Robinson formed Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses with the slightly larger mission of economic equity through entrepreneurship.

The Business Journal reported then and now that one of the major obstacles to building the black business community is access to capital. Mentoring opportunities, too, are of paramount importance. Adding to those numbers and building on the diversity of the business community can be vastly enhanced by the assistance of mentorships.

Grand Rapids architect Isaac Norris, whose firm, Isaac V. Norris & Associates, designed the Salvation Army Kroc Center, acknowledged in previous Business Journal reports that the Small Business Administration office at Grand Valley State University was a significant assist for him.

In regard to networking, however, Norris noted: “I can’t be at every marketing meeting or chamber of commerce or economic development board meeting. … There are challenges there.”

Norris employs fewer than five people. The Census reports show that black-owned businesses are smaller. The last Economic Census showed 2,000 of the black-owned firms in Grand Rapids are single proprietor businesses without any employees; 81 businesses in 2007 employed 1,072 with annual payroll of $39 million.

Mentorships have been cited time and again in the Business Journal as the single most important “assistance” that has and will continue to build the black business community — and a Grand Rapids that can be proud of its economic equity ranking.

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