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When a. Bruce Crawley launched the African American Chamber of Commerce of Philadelphia in 1993 he expected — and got — some dissension. Many in the business community and local media questioned the need for a a chamber of commerce tailored specifically to black business owners. But for the president of Crawley Haskins & Rodgers, black-owned. Philadelphia public relations and advertising firm, the answer was simple. “Up until the establishment of our chamber, no organization focused all of its resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the special challenges presented to African American-owned business,” Crawley says.
Currently, there are about 621,000 black-owned firms in the U.S., with receipts totaling $32.2 billion However making successful inroads into the larger economic landscape is still very difficult. It’s no secret that many of the nation’s black-owned firms have been hard-pressed to find venture capital, bank loans and procurement opportunities. Crawley points out that for the past two years Philadelphia’s public transportation system the Southeastern Pennsylvania I Transportation Authority (SEPTA), has awarded only 18% of its contracts to black contractors.
Black chambers of commerce are stepping in to change these issues for the better. From Buffalo, New York, to El Paso, Texas, and even Anchorage, Alaska, black chambers are positioning themselves as advocates for black business owners.
While belonging to a mainstream, corporate-based chamber does provide smaller businesses an opportunity to network with large companies, there are distinct advantages to belonging to a black chamber. Harvey Johnson, a founding member of the Greater Columbus African American Chamber of Commerce in Ohio, says the special needs of African American businesses can be easily overlooked in larger white chambers. “Many black businesses are small start-ups and need help getting contracts and loans,” Johnson says. “But if larger chambers are concentrating on multimillion-dollar companies, we can get lost in the shuffle.”
Many black chambers are formed to give entrepreneurs opportunities to network and gather under one umbrella for technical support. In places like Florida and Ohio, business owners are forming black chambers in response to cuts in affirmative action and set-aside programs for minority firms. Others are forming chambers to make a statement about the power of pooling black dollars. “African Americans spend a lot of money in this economy, and we get very little back,” says Jim Clingman, founder and executive director of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce.
“We need to realize the impact we can have on the economy when we pool our dollars. Through a black chamber of commerce, we can combine our money and resources to have more economic clout,” adds Clingman, who notes that African Americans own few businesses in the Cincinnati area.
Black chambers also offer a host of benefits that support business owners personally and professionally. The Greater Columbus African American Chamber offers members bonding programs, and pager and cell phone services. In Cincinnati, members of the African American chamber receive discounted long distance service at 9 cents a minute. Members plan and attend workshops on starting and maintaining a business.