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‘To have a great America, there must be a great Black America.’

Ron Busby, Sr., president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc., discusses the state of Black business, how policy can impact a more equitable economy, and what’s making him optimistic about the future.

The way Ron Busby, Sr., sees it, America’s success is absolutely dependent on Black-owned enterprises.

“In order to have a great America, there must be a great Black America,” Busby says. “And to have a great Black America, we’ve got to have great Black businesses.”

Busby, president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc., knows this topic well. After a lengthy stint in corporate America – including work for McDonald’s, IBM, and Xerox – and developing his own multimillion-dollar business, Busby now heads a group that serves Black-owned businesses across the country. As the leader of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc., Busby has a birds-eye view of the critical contributions Black-owned businesses make in our communities and to the larger economy, as well as the barriers that stunt and stall success.

Q: It’s estimated that 41% of Black businesses closed in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The next year, the Kauffman Indicators of Entrepreneurship showed the rate of new Black-owned business openings increased – but indicated that it was due more to necessity, not opportunity. That surge was followed by a rise that returned the rate to pre-pandemic levels. Why do you think we’ve seen this path with Black-owned businesses, specifically?

In order to have a great America, there must be a great Black America. And to have a great Black America, we’ve got to have great Black businesses.

I can tell you exactly why. You know about the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP), right? When the pandemic began, Black people owned and operated 2.6 million firms. Of that number, 2.5 million had no employees. The PPP was created to protect the employee, not the employer. This meant our firms were left out in the cold. So, in the first few months, between February and March 2020, we lost 442,000 Black firms because there weren’t any programs out there for us.

But here’s something you don’t hear about: We know that the banks were giving out the largest loans to the people that were coming in, looking for large amounts. But the majority of Black firms were looking for less than $7,500 in loans. Banks weren’t interested in doing those types of loans because they weren’t making any money off of them…. What that tells us is this was actually a conversation about access to capital. It was, “Hey, I just need enough to get through until this customer pays,” or “I need to be able to buy inventory so I can fulfill the orders. So, I’m going to close down for two weeks or a month until I can reestablish myself, then reopen.”

The Black Chamber advocated really, really hard to make some changes, so that Black entrepreneurs could participate in these programs. So, when people start to talk about “opportunities,” it really comes down to access to capital. And when that changed, the ability to do business changed.

When people start to talk about ‘opportunities,’ it really comes down to access to capital.

What makes you optimistic for Black-owned businesses?

The fastest-growing business segment in the country, in reference to new openings, is Black women. And there’s a good news/bad news story there – the good news is that women are taking their future into their own hands. But the bad news is that many of them were forced into becoming entrepreneurs in the first place. But this is a case where tragedy turns into triumph, and that creates opportunity. Now, we’re growing new businesses.

What role does policy play in supporting a more equitable economy, specifically for Black-owned businesses?

Currently, Black businesses get just 1.7% of federal contracting dollars. But if we could get that to just 4%, that would change things dramatically. It’s still a very low number, but 4% could represent somewhere around $20 billion, and it would create a lot of $100 million Black firms, and $50 million Black firms, and $20 million Black firms. And that’s how we really change the outcome of the future, by creating these businesses that can hire within our communities.

What can consumers and larger retailers do to better support Black-owned businesses?

Black products aren’t just sold in Black-owned businesses and Black retailers — the majority of Black-owned products are sold at Target, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, and other big box stores. So, what needs to happen now is there needs to be a way of being able to find and support those Black-owned businesses inside those big box stores.

We feel like there needs to be a way to be able to say, “Hey, if I want to support Black products, this is how I can find that product.” U.S. Black Chambers is creating technology that will tell you before you walk into one of these stores, “Here are the 30 Black products that are sold in this store.” If you’re looking for a product that’s owned and operated by a Black person, you can find it, and it’s not relegated to some aisle that’s in the back in the dark – it’s going to be displayed with regular products.

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