After surveying minority business owners in Vermont about what they most need to succeed, Curtiss Reed Jr. in Brattleboro has started work on a new statewide chamber of commerce.
Reed, who runs a nonprofit called Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, used part of a state-administered federal grant to the Vermont Community Loan Fund to send his survey last fall to 480 minority business owners. He received 75 responses to a long array of questions about owning a business in Vermont.
Among other things, Reed asked respondents if they belonged to local chambers of commerce or other business groups, and if not, why. He found 62% didn’t belong to any business association.
“Never occurred to me,” one respondent explained.
“Too GOP-centric, too white,” said another.
“Didn’t feel like I fit,” said yet another.
Reed said the state’s chambers of commerce aren’t doing enough to make minority business owners feel welcome.
“There is this attitude of benign neglect. They’re not even reaching out to mainstream businesses,” Reed said of the state’s chamber groups. “They’re just serving the usual suspects in their business communities.”
In all, the survey — which closed in November — went out to 480 business owners and more than 50 minority organizations, 200 minority thought leaders, and 15 charities and state agencies. Curtiss said he separated the business responses from the others.
Vermont’s minority business owners
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Reed estimates there are 2,000 minority-owned businesses in Vermont. He got serious about making contact with all of them and creating a database after the Agency of Commerce and Community Development started a grant program in July that included $2.5 million specifically for minority- and women-owned businesses.
Women business owners have several dedicated groups — such as the Vermont Commission on Women, the Center for Women and Enterprise, and the Vermont Women’s Business Network — that maintain databases and send out information about opportunities, Reed noted. Groups such as Love Burlington and Vermont Farm to Plate both share lists of minority-owned businesses as well.
But Reed wants to create a complete and more formal database to reach minority business owners.
When the state agency’s Covid-19 economic grant program opened July 6, he said, 1,700 women-owned businesses applied. It took Reed weeks to get the word out to minority business owners because he didn’t have that database.
“There was no turnkey operation to get information out ahead of time,” he said. “Had there not been a $2.5 million set-aside for BIPOC businesses, we would have been locked out of recovery funds within days of the grant program launch.”
Three-quarters of the survey respondents said they’d like to see a government commission dedicated to increasing the health of minority-owned businesses. This month, Reed started meeting with others to talk about creating an organization where minority business owners could meet. It’s in the early stages.
“We haven’t tested the market yet,” he said. “Yes, there were a lot of businesses that said they would join such an organization, but we don’t know what the price point is.” He noted the average membership fee for a chamber of commerce is $185.
At that price, “if we were to create an organization and staff it, and this is just the staff cost, a salary of $50,000 with benefits, we would need to have 270 members.”
Longtime HR consultant Al Wakefield of Mendon is helping Reed create what Reed calls the business affinity group. Wakefield said he felt fortunate to have moved to Vermont in the 1980s and built a successful international career. He said he was in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t know that I’d want to be Black and moving to Vermont right now,” Wakefield said. “I’d expect to face a whole bunch of obstacles that I personally did not face at the time.”
Like Reed, he said it is difficult for many minority business owners to approach and work with traditionally white institutions.
“When you walk into a room and you’re Black, people notice that immediately and something changes in the dynamic,” Wakefield said. “Some whole level of scrutiny is brought to the meeting. For a lot of people who have not been through it, it’s hard to get through.”
Outside of the mainstream
Reed said 235 minority adults in Vermont are entrepreneurs who own businesses, often very small ones. From the survey, he learned most of them don’t get their business advice from institutional sources, such as the Small Business Administration, but instead use informal networks such as friends and family.
“The formal sector requires more structure, and that structure is dictated by banks and financial institutions,” Reed said. “As long as you’re sort of a mom-and-pop, operating out of the back of your car, or a retail operation, you don’t need to think about it. If you’re not applying for a bank loan, applying for a government contract, responding to a request for bids, getting information from friends and family and other sources works just fine.”
Reed was surprised to learn through the survey that more than half the respondents were getting the financial assistance they needed to survive the Covid pandemic.
“That’s far more than I expected,” he said.
Access to capital was listed as the most common problem; finding technical assistance in areas like accounting and bookkeeping came next. Reed said mainstream businesses were more likely to approach the SBA for free business advising programs, and connections to financing.
“Sometimes it’s just the idea of, ‘Do I have what it takes to deal with a bureaucracy?’” Reed said. “For a minority-owned business, there’s always the question of whether or not the people that purport to help you are really trying to help you. In predominantly white institutions, there is implicit bias that oftentimes blocks minority-owned businesses from accessing services.”
Craftsbury resident Sung-Hee Chung is also working on the project with Reed. She said the death of George Floyd and the social movement that followed have opened the door to new conversations about race in Vermont. She expects Reed’s work to do the same thing.
“We can share overlooked stories of success in Vermont to help change the historic perception people have of the BIPOC,” she said.
Vermont Chamber wants to reach out
Betsy Bishop, the longtime president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said she and the chamber’s board recognize they could be doing a better job of reaching out to minority-owned businesses.
Willie Docto, who owns the Moose Meadow Lodge in Duxbury, said he made that a goal when he joined the board in September after 20 years of membership.
“I asked her, ‘Are there other people of color on the chamber board?’ and she said, ‘No,’” said Docto, who was born in the Philippines. “I said, ‘Great, I will help you with that,’ and she was very receptive.”
Docto said business associations have been valuable to him over the years.
“I can understand why people might feel unwelcome, but I would also advise business owners to reach out to established organizations and see if it benefits them,” he said.
A long-term project
Reed expects the creation of the business group for minorities to take a long time. Meanwhile, he’s looking deeper into the data he has collected to see where in Vermont minority-owned businesses are thriving and to look at ways to attract more minorities to the state.
He called reports that some minorities hesitate to move to Vermont “a myth.
“I am really bullish on Vermont, and work to increase the number of folks of color who move here,” he said. “I try to put information out in the public square that this is a desirable destination for folks of color.”
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