Helping others rise up: Support offered for minority-owned business owners

Crystal Stevenson

The Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation is seeking business owners interested in becoming a general member or board member of the recently announced Lake Charles Regional Minority Business chamber of commerce.

This is the second new minority chamber announced this year in Louisiana — the most recent was in Alexandria.

“We have been working with state elected leaders in different parishes and they actually shared a request that as our foundation was being formulated, to make sure we reached out to the business leaders in the Lake Charles area in revitalizing what had been the Lake Charles Black chamber that had previously been there,” said Foundation Executive Director Kelisha Garrett. “The leaders there had shared with us that Lake Charles had had the first African American business leadership in the state and they had the longest register of chamber people that was solely focused on businesses of color. At the time it was called the Colored Business Chamber of Commerce.”

Garrett said as meetings about the foundation progressed, local leaders shared the city’s longevity and history as it related to industry and development — which spurred continued conversations to define what supporting minority-owned businesses would look like while facilitating relationships with corporate entities and governmental bodies.

She said the need for launching a Black chamber in Lake Charles arose because of the “missing business technical assistance and disenfranchisement when it relates to the way businesses start in minority communities verses those that start in communities of means.”

“If there is a person that is not exposed or may not have had the same educational opportunities or may not have been afforded the same access to capital to start the same type of business, when you look at them on the computer to do business with them their ability to do business and provide pricing that is comparative to companies that may have been inclusive in the past and their ability to foster those relationships and know the key players within the industry that they want to serve may not be as easily accessible as their counterparts that may be in a majority-owned corporation,” Garrett said. “They may not have access to opportunities or information because they’re not included in developmental opportunities and discussions and they were not represented, from a former standpoint, in state government or municipal government.”

Garrett said it’s a “harder curve and a higher hill to climb” for minority business owners to understand how to do business, where to do business and with whom to do business.

“Because of that, we are providing technical assistance in a framework of a chamber of commerce that provides access to information and assists those businesses with facilitating relationships or doing the outreach that is needed to provide them with the information so they know to go after the business opportunities,” Garrett said. “While minority and small businesses typically have one or less employees, their larger counterparts have larger extended staff that have the ability to do those things for them while they are still providing the business service.”

She said the coronavirus pandemic caused the world to rethink how it does business, which in turn has also hurt minority-owned businesses, which are typically smaller organizations.

“A lot of the businesses that were shuttered were in food service but in a mom-and-pop type of restaurant that may have had family working in the facility that were disproportionately impacted by COVID because of lack of health care, poor dietary habits and poor health conditions that had been historically in impoverished communities,” Garrett said. “We have had a lot of external influences on how this impacted the society in different manners from a socioeconomic standpoint. Many of these businesses are on a cash basis or do not have the best net terms when it comes to their vendors providing them with the goods and services that they need in order to provide services to their own clients.

“When you impact the financial market and then also cause disruption in industries that may not have a formal relationship with banking institutions, or if the banking institution is more like a credit union or a local bank versus a regional or national bank you have limited access to funds,” she said. “The culmination of all of these things — and don’t forget prior to COVID we were in an economic downturn because of the collapse of the oil industry — things were stacking externally against the things that are a business’ operations on top of historic disenfranchisement and lack of access. Those are the reasons we are at a turning point.”

Garrett said the chamber will allow minority businesses to re-establish themselves with a firmer foundation and a better understanding of what needs to happen when an event — such as the pandemic, hurricanes or winter storm — occurs, and how to prepare both their business life cycle and its continuity as well as their family’s health focus and its continuity.

Candidates being sought are those that have been in business for many generations but remain relatively unknown to the larger community.

“They have made their mark in a very specific area — like farming or the fresh seafood industry — but if we are not aware of them, we would like to bring them to the table because we have corporations and municipalities that are looking for ways to support those businesses by providing opportunities and an understanding of what their offerings are,” she said.

Those in professional services such as medical, dental, social work, psychiatry and accounting, as well as those in education, day care and tutoring are also being sought.

“We’re looking at education and what we can do from a sense of either creating policy or creating institutions that are more effective in providing education foundations to the children in impoverished or under-utilized communities,” she said. “Then collectively we can move the business community forward.”

The goal is to be able to provide a robust business community directly of businesses owned by local individuals that are Black, minority or indigenous people of color.

“Currently that is the hardest challenge for corporations that have have corporate commitments to identify and use minority businesses or disadvantaged businesses,” she said. “They have to go look under a rug to find them. Why is that? In the age of technology we still do not have one central data point that gives access to these businesses so that people can easily identify them.”

For those interested in starting a business, the chamber can also be a one-stop shop in what to do, how to register and how to operate.

“We can walk you through the minutia of this,” she said. “We can be your resource and help you through that process.”

Garrett said the chamber will work hand-in-hand with other economic development associations and facilitate relationships with majority chambers so business utilizations will increase. She said the foundation is researching possible sites for a physical office location.

Candidates interested in becoming a member or board member of the Lake Charles Regional Minority Business chamber of commerce can contact the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation at 504-655-7572 or email communications@labizspeaks.org.””

Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation Executive Director Kelisha Garrett meets with Gov. John Bel Edwards and David St. Etienne, LCCF President and CEO.

Special to the American Press

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