Published

Hanging back, moving ahead



Letitia Smith, Gloria Manns and KarenGrogan advocate networking as ameans to build African- Americaninvestment
In examining the growing diversity of the Blue Ridge Region, it is instructive to ask: "Why are there so few African-American faces represented in the region's business pages and civic organizations? The African-American community is a significant player in the economic environment, representing about 18 percent of the Lynchburg MSA and 30 percent of the City of Lynchburg. Similarly, 13 percent in the Roanoke MSA is African-American, with about 27 percent in the City of Roanoke.

The community of African-American businesspeople is far from homogeneous, and includes many successful and locally involved professionals. Nonetheless, there are several major forces contributing to low African-American visibility, according to Black leaders, including:

 Historical discomfort with predominantly white organizations;

 Involvement in alternate organizations and institutions;

 Geographical separation;

 Reluctance to toot one's own horn.

"We tend to write about, recruit, talk to, talk about those people and things that are most visible," says Alfred Dowe, Roanoke city councilman, and Roanoke Valley banker. "Many Black business owners are not in the Rotary Clubs, country clubs, chambers, etc., so people have to reach out to us."

"You can't look at the [visible] few of us and use us as the prototype," says Reginald Shareef. "The white community sees things in a legalistic sense, thinking 'the barriers are down-why don't they come?'" Shareef is professor of public administration and political science at Radford University. He often writes on leadership and organizational change.

Historical baggage

It's a matter of "historical baggage," he says, explaining that African-Americans did not feel welcome in mainstream organizations for generations. Change in behavior takes time, he says, citing the analogy of the slow transformation of post-Communist Russia. "After 70 years of government control, it's going to take people 50 or 60 years to un-learn old ways and adapt to a new system."

Another remnant of historical baggage is the breakdown of the cohesive African-American business community after the passage of civil rights legislation. The pre-integration African-American businesses were monopolies, says Shareef, serving captive markets. "They were not necessarily run efficiently enough to survive in a [post-integration] competitive market," and many failed.

Forty years later, development of minority business skills is still an issue. "We need to recapture the entrepreneurial spirit while understanding the social dynamics," Shareef says.

Cultural barriers may discourage aspiring African-American business people from using mainstream resources such as chambers of commerce or the Small Business Administration.

"There is a reluctance to ask questions at a white seminar because of the perception that [African-Americans] would be considered inferior." Therefore, "Black people feel more comfortable talking about these kinds of things with other Black people."

Alternate institutions

Alternate institutions have come to play a huge role in the development of the African-American business community. For example, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), some more than 150 years old, came into being to provide college educations to African-Americans during the segregation era. With more than 100 still in existence, there is only one in the western half of Virginia, Virginia University of Lynchburg (VUL).

The Christian-focused school, founded in 1886, has a small student population (about 300), but large dreams. Infused with energy with the arrival of President Ralph Reavis in 2000, VUL has plans to expand its enrollment, enlarge its library, add a business school, and build a fine arts center, conference center and sports complex.

"We will always have a need for HBCUs," says Reavis. He gives several reasons:

 Social comfort;

 Socialization-many are "not properly socialized within our own communities";  Leadership development;

 Nurturing-with special attention given to the "particularities" of African-American culture.

Additionally, a 1997 report by the Educational Testing Service found that "graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities...were more likely to plan on entering a program in the sciences, engineering, or business than were students who had graduated from Traditionally White Institutions." The report also cited the importance of HBCUs' lower costs and higher scholarships: "...because so many come from families of low socio-economic status, it is probable that many students would not have attended any college at all had there not been a [HBCU] to attend."

The Greeks

Another unique African-American institution is the alumni Greek society (sorority or fraternity), which, along with African-American churches and national social organizations, takes a leadership role in developing the business community. The Roanoke region, for example, is home to six active sorority and fraternity chapters. Delta Sigma Theta sorority is an example of one of these.

Like other Greek societies, Delta is decades old, with a mission that supports community service. Karen Grogan, a vice president of SunTrust bank, chairs her chapter's economic development program. "There was a need for our graduate chapters because of the social injustices [throughout history]. We are still active because there are still things to be done."

Delta's past economic development activities included college and financial planning workshops. Currently, the chapter is developing an African-American business directory. Future plans call for programs on financial literacy, and a home ownership initiative.

"The greater community should know that this is a source, not just because it is African-American, but because its members are civic-minded individuals," who could be recruited for jobs or civic positions, says Letitia Smith, human resources director for the Roanoke Times, and president of the Roanoke chapter of Delta.

"Roanoke is like a 'club town,'" says Gloria Manns, owner of Manns Counseling Services, Roanoke City School Board member, and a Delta member. "You almost have to belong to something because there are not enough of us to make an impact otherwise." After the fragmentation that occurred in the African-American business community after integration, "these [community-based] groups bring it back together," she says.

Building Resources

The subject of role models surfaced repeatedly during interviews. Carl Hutcherson is a role model on several levels: civic (as Mayor of Lynchburg), economically (as president of the Carl B. Hutcherson Funeral Home) and spiritually (as pastor of the Trinity United Methodist Church). Several years ago, he hosted an all-day conference for African-American businesses, featuring workshops and speakers, and classes at Lynchburg College. He said the City is now looking into revitalizing the Fifth Street corridor, an historically African-American business district.

Shareef carries the idea of role models even further, saying, "Since we haven't been in the mainstream of American life, we need ... to develop a list of Black business leaders-to highlight them as knowledge partners, mentors, 'cultural interpreters' and links to the broader society."

Curtis Jackson, owner of Blacksburg-based PC & InfoSystems Consulting, observes, "African-American professionals exert a general influence in the African-American and community at large because social capital increases. These role models provide an influence for the younger generation, conveying the message that 'It's possible [to be successful] here.'"

Being successful here is on Penny Franklin's mind also. She is a founder of an African-American civic group called The Community Group, in addition to being a Montgomery County School Board member and an employee and union representative with Hubble Lighting in Christiansburg. "I wish there were some type of local business incubator geared toward minorities, to help African-Americans learn about entrepreneurship," she says. "We're thinking this is something [the Community Group] has to do."

Developing youth

Nat Marshall, senior human resources specialist for BWXT in Lynchburg, sees youth development as the key to building the African-American business community. "We have to instill in our youth the confidence to understand and do math and sciences. From there it builds and [leads to professions] like engineering." He says it is important to combine traditional sports aspirations with academic pursuits. "It starts at ages three, four, five," he says.

Gil Cobbs of Lynchburg has worn many hats during his career-school principal, marketing consultant, Lynchburg city councilman, and, currently, developer of the upscale Gilfield Village development in Forest. "I think there is a great need for networking and mutual support [among the minority community]. I also think affirmative action is still very necessary." Nevertheless, Cobbs is comfortable in the greater community as well. "I couldn't have [been successful] without being active in the Bedford and Lynchburg Chambers," he says. He has also been a member of a predominantly White Rotary group for about 30 years. A lot of success is relationship-building, says Cobbs. "You have to overcome all these people's doubts."

(Deborah Nason is a contributing editor to the Business Journal.)

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