COLONIE — The Capital Region Chamber has begun an initiative to aid minority-owned businesses and increase diversity, equity and inclusion at other businesses.
The effort, backed by $1.5 million in support from multiple organizations, seeks to open the doors of opportunity to a wider segment of the population.
But sometimes that’s not enough, leaders of the effort 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 in knowing what to do once they get through it. And some may not even know the door exists.
“What you find with BIPOC businesses and in particular Black businesses, we’re not coming from generations of family members owning businesses so they can guide us,” said Danielle Davis, who joined the Chamber in May as its director of BIPOC business growth.
“The barriers are not necessarily, ‘No, you can’t go here,’ but not knowing 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 assistance with business growth to BIPOC-owned enterprises and support practices within the greater business community that will boost equity.
President and CEO Mark Eagan said the Chamber is often seen as a business-development organization for its 2,700 member businesses and their 150,000 employees. But those businesses’ success depends on the overall health of the community, and the health of a community relies in no small part on all members of that community having equal access to opportunity.
“That’s really the foundation for all of the work, all of the things the Chamber and our affiliate the Center for Economic Growth work on,” Eagan said.
As the Chamber looked for ways to promote equity, 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 on Davis; and, this week, launched this initiative.
Benitez and others spoke of 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, ongoing and deliberate.
“This funding allows us to do that,” he told the sponsors of the effort.
Davis recalled her experiences running a Jamaican restaurant in Albany.
“As an entrepreneur myself I know firsthand the difficulties and roadblocks that small businesses face,” she said. “Attempting to do everything yourself, as I found out, and not tapping into the resources that exist can lead to unforced errors and eventual failures. Some may not want to admit it, but the road for BIPOC businesses in particular is rocky.”
The challenges in traveling the road alone gave Davis the desire to change the landscape and support others making their way.
“If BIPOC businesses succeed our community will succeed,” she said, while 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 trouble accessing capital.
Davis is going out to the BIPOC business community to spread the message about the new initiative.
“What I have been doing is calling businesses, actually going out and meeting with entrepreneurs,” she said, because many small business owners can’t close shop to come in.
Networking and leads from people such as Ron Gardner, Schenectady’s affirmative action officer, are especially valuable.
“That’s how it has been going, word of mouth,” she said.
Jahkeen Hoke, CEO of Business For Good, called his organization’s support an investment in the ecosystem of the region. “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 literacy. He sees this Chamber initiative as an extension of that. “We have the opportunity to really affect lives … in a broader context of health, the social determinants of health,” he said.
Tamika Otis, KeyBank’s corporate responsibility officer in the Capital Region, 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, all of that was 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 outcomes we’re looking for,” she said.
Barriers to equity still exist today but are mostly more subtle now than those a couple generations ago, Otis said. “What’s beautiful is the awareness of it now. We’re not afraid to call a thing a thing anymore, and then actively work collectively to combat some of those inequitable systems that have been established through the years.”
The initiative to assist BIPOC-owned businesses will include one-on-one engagement, connection to resources, funding for expert consultation, introductions and networking events, educational sessions and skills-building classes, professional development through a free one-year Chamber membership and assistance with gaining 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 sources, providing resources and guidance to advance DEI practices and providing marketing/outreach to attract and retain a diverse workforce.