Black Business: Its role and function within the African-American community

Businessman Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1868-1940). Publisher of the Chicago Defender, Abbott’s Monthly and the New Pittsburg Courier.  He set the example for John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing (Ebony Magazine).

“In relation to the negro community, the value of negro business should not be underestimated. In the internal life of negro society it provides a degree of stability. Despite formidable obstacles, it has developed a corps of men and women of competence and organizational discipline who constitute a talented leadership reserve”

Dr. Martin L. King Jr.


Strictly speaking,  there’s not a “black” way to run a business. The standards for providing good service at a fair price are immutable and aren’t a function of one’s ethnicity or background. So if one hopes to remain in business, he had better familiarize himself with the very best way to provide the highest customer service possible.  So your first philosophical concerns when starting a business really need to revolve around how you’re going to market your product or service and render the highest possible service so you can get repeat business.  So, the first role of black business is the same as any other business—finding a route to survive then thrive.

But beyond that, the African-American entrepreneur has to broaden his or her perspective and there’s a philosophical twist or direction that must be considered, depending on where your business may operate.   A business involves working with people and, as such, a business really becomes part of the fabric of the community in which one operates and ultimately it not only serves the purpose of the owner(s), but also serves the purposes of the community by providing needed services, jobs, training and inspiration for others.  As King said in the quote above, it provides a “degree of stability”.

So going into business is not only  about the entrepreneur gaining profits, but it’s also about the sort of footprints that business leaves in the community measured mainly by how it helps other people.  The best of business is really win win.  If one can figure out a way for customers, employees, owners and the community at large to win, then one not only has accomplished a lot, but everyone has a vested interest in the business’ continued success.  Win win scenarios in business create a lot of stakeholders in the success of any business.

In the internal life of the many African-American communities, there are few stakeholders mainly because there are few businesses.  Because there are few stakeholders, there’s little that folks feel like they have to protect, hence the apathetic stance on holding folks accountable whether its politicians, the miscreant element or other folks in authority.  This is why economic and business development within the African-American community are key.  Again, it’s not solely about making money so much as creating stakeholders and fostering accountability and stability within.

When one is operating within a community, coming into contact with those who live there is inevitable as they’ll likely form the pool of people you’re going hire employees from.  Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from the people who I’ve worked with and I’ve been able to be a positive influence for some.    It’s really the people part of business where one gets into the fabric of one’s community. Here are some of their stories which I’m most proud of and they represent what I believe is part of the role and function of a black owned business in the community.  These aren’t their real names:

Alvin B., CPA: When I first began my practice, I took a job with full time pay, but part-time hours that enabled me to devote the time to build up my business.  The job was as an accounting professor at college in New York City where I met Alvin.  He was one of my students and was unsure what he wanted to do from a career standpoint.  He became intrigued by what I told him about the accounting business and begged me to let him come work for me and he was willing to do it for free just to learn the ropes of the accounting business.  I hired him and I pretty much taught him everything I knew.  Alvin took that, finished school, passed the CPA exam and has now been running his own practice for the past 15 years or so.   He literally has gone from being my student and understudy to being a valued colleague who I don’t hesitate to consult with.  Although I didn’t realize it fully at the time, I taught another man how to feed himself , so what really happened here was a economic multiplier effect where my business created another business. I’m most proud of having served as a mentor for Alvin and consider this to be one of my greatest accomplishments. 

Mary W:  Mary was a young single mother on welfare when I hired her as an administrative assistant.  She had been on public assistance for most of her life and like most folks on assistance, really needed to develop the work habits and skills necessary to function in a professional office setting.  I decided to take a chance and hire her.  This was around 1995 when the Million Man March was all of the rage and everyone was talking about black men going to march in DC.  For some reason, this conjured up in Mary some incidents from her childhood which she shared with me.  Basically, her uncles and older cousins would routinely rape and sexually abuse her.  The recollection brought her to tears and nearly brought me to tears as well.  Her point was that she never had much in the way of positive relations with black men and she saw me as a different more positive image of a black man because I was in business.  Also, because I was dealing with the type of people as far as clients were concerned that she never knew existed, her view of the world was expanded to such an extent that she could never go back on welfare.  She told me that while she was on welfare, her and her friends saw black people like me, but just dismissed it as unattainable and not for them and it wasn’t real for her until she worked for me.  I sent Mary to an HR Block tax course while she worked for me and the last I heard she was working full time as a payroll clerk and had a sideline business preparing taxes.  She came back to see me one time to tell me that I was like the father she never had. 

Dwayne B: Dwayne was the first and only male administrative assistant I ever hired.  He came to me jobless,  willing to work and willing to learn all that he could.  I had to wind up firing an another administrative assistant due to the work not getting done and Dwayne came in and did yeoman’s work in getting caught up with certain paperwork that needed to be sent to the IRS.  He didn’t have a car to get to work and wanted one badly.  I had an old Honda that I was willing to sell to him so we worked out a deal—we exchanged work for the car and after a month of so, he was happily driving.

Dwayne, like Mary, had limited exposure to black professionals and really didn’t know they existed until he worked for me and was astounded to see that “our people even made that kind of money”.  Needless to say, his worldview was expanded. He too learned a bit about tax preparation and last I heard had a sideline business going with preparing them.

So, effectively, my decision to go into business created three additional businesses and broadened the worldview of these three people.  These are only three examples as there are countless other examples and situations that I’ve been in with folks who’ve worked for me and I won’t get into the businesses I’ve supported with advice and counsel that my clients have started.  I don’t wish to claim some special knowledge or skill that someone similarly trained doesn’t have.  I merely wish to make the point that business creation drives an economic multiplier effect in any community and that one of the keys for the development of the African-American community and the best way to create stakeholders in the political and social situation within our communities is for business development and formation to take place.

The knowledge flow and expansion of worldviews was not a one way street.  So, just as people learned from me, I learned a great deal from them. Here are my takeaways:

  1. My education and my life prior to going into business had largely taken me away from the community.   I had been places and seen and done things that I took for granted mainly because those I was around were doing as I was. Each of these people taught me that what I took for granted was something they very much needed.  Had I not gone into business, I likely would have never met them let alone been in position to have helped them.   It’s clear that a brain drain exists where the best and brightest leave and take much with them that which our people need.  Business creation can remarry this talent back to the community that sorely needs it. 
  2. There are some black folks in less than optimal circumstances who are literally hungry for opportunity. They are raw talents who can be molded and shaped in a better direction.  All they need is a positive direction to go into.  A business can provide that and perhaps provide a degree of discipline some have never known. 
  3. Role Models.  This can not be underestimated.  In my profession, less than 1% of certified public accountants are African-American, so there aren’t a lot of black CPA’s around if younger people are looking for mentors.  Mary used to tell her friends that she worked for a black man and they’d come just to see me;  they didn’t need any returns done or anything of the like, they just wanted to see a black man in business with their own eyes.  I’ve had clients bring their kids with them  on their appointments so they could just see a black man in business.   I’ve even done the same with my own kids with other business people by taking them with me on client visits.   

Again, although I consider myself to be a conscious person, I don’t believe that I really had a full appreciation of any of this when starting out as most of my concerns were about the more mundane aspects of business like trying to make money.  But it’s clear to me that African-American business impacts much more that just one’s pocket.  It’s the impact on the fabric of the community as measured by the impact you can have on lives that’s important.  That perhaps is one of the paramount roles and functions of black business.

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