BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — “How do we create the next A.G. Gaston?”
This was the key question posed to four panelists and about 100 attendees at the beginning of a free town hall meeting Tuesday night at the A.G. Gaston Conference, an annual event designed to encourage small business in the Birmingham area and held this year at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC).
That question was posed by Bob Dickerson, a conference co-founder and the executive director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center.
The town hall meeting, held in one of the BJCC east meeting rooms, was meant to allow attendees to learn more about efforts to develop new businesses in deteriorating communities in the Birmingham area.
The conference, which began Tuesday, pays tribute to Gaston, a pioneering African-American entrepreneur in Birmingham who was a multi-millionaire by the time of his death in 1996 at the age of 103.
The conference concludes today with the A.G. Gaston Empowerment luncheon at the BJCC beginning at noon.
And the conference — including the town hall — is “another opportunity to look at Gaston’s model and find ways to emulate it,” Dickerson said on Feb. 3. “And moreover it helps us to identify the ingredients necessary to perhaps create the next A.G. Gaston.”
According to Dickerson, he worked from 1984-1989 for Gaston, whom he said was “wildly successful.” And he said that “no one in our community has come close to equaling what (Gaston) did.”
He served as moderator of the town hall along with Tracey Morant Adams, a senior vice president at Renasant Bank in Birmingham.
The master of ceremonies was Frank Woodson, executive director of the non-profit group Mission Alabama.
The four keynote speakers at the two-day conference served as panelists for the town meeting.
They were John Sibley Butler, director of the Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas; Dr. Julianne Malveaux, founder of Last Word Productions; Melvin Gravely, an author and director of The Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking in Cincinnati, Ohio; and George Fraser, CEO of FraserNet, a Cleveland, Ohio-based business consulting firm.
“We want to have a discussion about making our neighborhoods incubators for new enterprises,” said Dickerson, who encouraged audience members to ask questions of the panelists.
Malveaux noted that Gaston, who had a “great entrepreneurial spirit,” got started by answering what he always called the “unmet needs” of a captive African-American market whose needs for such things as banking and burial insurance were not met by white businessmen in the Jim Crow South.
Gravely, in looking for immediately applicable lessons in Gaston’s life, said that African-American communities “need an entrepreneurial mindset.”
African-Americans need to make entrepreneurship “the conversation around the kitchen table” and the “cool thing instead of going to basketball camp,” he said.
Access to capital
Gravely also expressed confidence that people with solid business ideas can get the capital they need. “I’ve never seen a good idea not get funded,” he said.
Malveaux said she disagreed with Gravely to an extent due to what she said is a lack of access to capital for African Americans. “A lot of folks in this room don’t have access to these rich people,” she said.
Gravely acknowledged the problem but countered that “the game has never been more equal” with the rise of crowd-funding sites on the Internet. “When I’m online on Kickstarter, nobody even knows I’m black,” he said.
According to Butler, it is important for a community to be organized properly to help fund and nurture businesses. He cited Silicon Valley in California and his adopted home of Austin, Texas, as examples and said that Austin has numerous large black-owned businesses. These cities “have not just the ideas but the business support system,” he said.
“We have all the rich people (in Austin) organized” into eight “angel networks” of investors in start-up businesses, Butler said.
It is necessary to “organize wealth” in Birmingham and Alabama, emphasize entrepreneurship and make entrepreneurs “the heroes,” according to Butler.
The African-American community should do more to emphasize the important of business and capital, according to Malveaux.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s stressed education, which is good, but that there should be more emphasis on access to capital, according to Malveaux.
And she said that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) should do more to teach entrepreneurship.
She added that “one challenge with black businesses is that we are still going into traditional businesses that have a low rate of return,” citing restaurants as one example. And she said that African-Americans need to “look at non-traditional businesses.”
“Access to capital for traditional businesses is an issue,” said Gravely, who noted that the angel investors such as those discussed by Butler are usually looking for bigger returns on their money than a small, traditional enterprise can supply.
The political aspect
In efforts to encourage minority business and economic development of communities, Malveaux said that one cannot ignore the political aspect. There are mayors of American cities who are “sitting on buckets of money” who could do more to help create opportunities for black businesses, according to Malveaux.
She said mayors and governors can make “discretionary decisions that benefit the African American community” and that government — including the federal government — should do more to “enforce regulations on the books” and make sure that minority business enterprises (MBEs) have access to capital.
Adams, a former director of economic development for the city of Birmingham, agreed that cities can play “a vital role in supplying access to capital.”
But Adams said that those cities “can’t do it all. You have to protect the city’s interest.”
Some of the local businesses seeking assistance “do not have their houses in order,” she said, calling that issue “the elephant in the room.”
Malveaux praised the late former mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, who she said used the power of his office to open avenues for black entrepreneurs. “Mayors can say, ‘We will not do business with people who do not do business with black people,'” she said.
Butler noted that black people in Atlanta were always “very entrepreneurial, even beginning in the 1880s,” and that those efforts made it easier for Jackson’s initiatives to bear fruit. “When Maynard said there would be black suppliers, they were there,” he said.
Dickerson said that there a lot of black elected officials in Alabama, and not just mayors, who could help black enterprise. “If they turn toward advancing black business, it would happen,” he said.
But he said that, unfortunately, some African-American officials “are not with us, even if they look like us.”
Malveax agreed. “Everybody brown ain’t down,” she said. Malveaux also said that the concept of “B to B” was important, meaning that black people should try to do business with other black people.
Adams stressed the importance of African-American professionals and organizations, such as sororities, working to help mentor and support young business people. “It will take organizations and professionals in this room to support young entrepreneurs,” she said.
“When we want to see our communities grow, we need to reach out and help those businesses grow,” she said.
Bridging the “chasm”
A young man in the audience who said he attended Wenonah High School before earning a degree in business at the University of Alabama said he saw a “chasm” between some of the people he went to high school with and some of his fellow African-American UA graduates. He said this caused him to fear that it would be difficult to rebuild some of the old black neighborhoods.
“How can we create the (neighborhood) incubators when the people who have the talent don’t come back and don’t live where they are needed?” he asked the panel.
Butler said there was hope for these areas, based on his experience in helping set up a successful block-long business incubator in a “burned-out area” in Newark, N.J., and another similar project he is setting up in Shreveport, La.
“Innovation and entrepreneurship can be done anywhere,” he said. “Anybody can bring that spirit. It doesn’t matter where you went to school. I would take those areas of (Birmingham) and create an incubator and put in businesses.”
Malveaux called this another area were politics can play a positive role, since elected officials can use tax credits and other means to help encourage people to move back to distressed neighborhoods.
A “new vision” for African-Americans
Fraser, who arrived at the meeting late due to a long, difficult plane flight from Cleveland, made an impassioned plea for a greater level of racial “consciousness” among African-Americans.
“We should uplift our own people first — not only, but first,” he said.
“We need a new vision for black people,” he said. “We should focus on making black people great first — not Birmingham, not Alabama.”
He said if African-Americans make themselves great, they will then naturally help their city and state.
Fraser said he believed that, since the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the 1960s, African-Americans have not held onto their identity.
“We have lost a sense of who we are,” he said. “We are an incredible people, a brilliant people.”
Malveaux agreed that there was once a strong “black consciousness” and that too many young African-Americans believe, naively, that they do not experience racism.
She stressed again that it is important for African-Americans to support and do business with each other. She said that an African-American businessman once told her, “We have everything we need as African-Americans to succeed if we connect to each other.”
Fraser also said that it is a difficult truth that many African-Americans, in their subconscious, perhaps still believe that they are not as capable as white people. He cited an example of an African-American Internet entrepreneur who was unable to get the funding he needed for his business even from African-American investors.
The town hall meeting was designed to allow participation by those who could not afford the conference registration fee or were unable to attend the event during the day because of work obligations, according to Dickerson.
The conference web site is at www.aggastonconference.com.
February 19, 2014