Black business leaders applaud Detroit chamber’s focus on equity but say more needs to be done ⋆

Black business leaders in Detroit on Thursday applauded the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce for offering several Mackinac Policy Conference sessions centered on racial diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) but urged the business and financial lending communities to do more to support African American businesses. 

“I’m new to the chamber, and I’m about inclusion,” said Dwan Dandridge, Black Leaders Detroit CEO, who biked 377 miles from the Motor City to Mackinaw City to attend the gathering. 

“I intend to raise awareness and use that as a platform,” Dandridge continued. “So, for everybody who says that they’re about it, I’m extending an invitation. But that invitation will turn into evaluation.”

The chamber’s four-day conference concluded on Thursday and presented sessions focused on DEI at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.   

Charity Dean, Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance CEO and president | Photo by Ken Coleman

Charity Dean, Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance CEO and president, gave the chamber credit for holding the DEI sessions but said that moving forward the “proof will be in the pudding” when it comes to the business community’s commitment to the issue. 

“This is work that everybody has to do,” said Dean, an attorney who previously led the city of Detroit’s Department of Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunity. “It’s not only up to Black people to fix Black people’s situation. It is really the work of the region.”

Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, told the Advance on Thursday that his organization is committed to diversity. Pillars of the conference were developed after working with Wright Lassiter, the CEO and president of the Henry Ford Health System, and his team. Lassiter is African American. The pillars were: “accelerate our COVID-19 economic recovery and sustainability, advance racial justice and equity for all, and invest in the health of people and communities.”

“The chamber has made a commitment to advance racial justice and economic equity in our region and state,” Baruah told the Advance. “The Mackinac Policy Conference plays an integral role in breaking down systemic barriers by bringing business, civic, and government leaders to address education access and economic advancement.”

‘If you can’t develop a sense of urgency around Black entrepreneurship in Detroit, where can you develop a sense of urgency?’

Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, said during a conference interview that “diversity of thought” is an imperative for hiring today.

“Lay race and gender diversity on top of that, then every time, the thought process in the room is richer,” said Brewer, who is African American and a Detroit native. She made the comments on Wednesday during a conversation with Detroit Public Television host Christy McDonald.

Walgreens Boots Alliance is a drugstore chain with 9,100 U.S. locations. Brewer was a member of Amazon’s board of directors from 2019 to February 2021 and was named chief executive officer of Walgreen Boots Alliance in March. She has previously held executive posts at Starbucks, Kimberly-Clark, Walmart, and Sam’s Club. Brewer encouraged business leaders to consider “diversity of thought” in addition to racial and gender diversity when making decisions. 

Dennis Archer Jr., chairman of the chamber’s Racial Justice and Economic Equity committee, said about the chamber’s group during a session on Wednesday that the chamber is “putting our money where our mouth is.”

But he also challenged the business community to assist Black-owned firms and not offer “lip service.”

“The George Floyd murder provides us with the opportunity to make a change,” said Archer, a son of Detroit’s second African American mayor Dennis Archer, a restaurant owner and real estate developer. “We have to act now.” 

There are entire sectors and regions and especially minority-owned businesses that are at risk of being left even further behind.

– Brian Calley, Small Business Association of Michigan president

Brian Calley, Small Business Association of Michigan president, said during the “High Expectations, High Returns: Investing in Minority Entrepreneurs” session on Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on Black businesses, and that has exacerbated the disparity between Black-owned businesses and white-owned ones.

“I think if we’re not careful and very direct and intentional about addressing the widening gaps that occurred in the pandemic we won’t be stronger in the future,” said Calley. “We will be weaker.”

“There are entire sectors and regions and especially minority-owned businesses that are at risk of being left even further behind,” said the GOP former lieutenant governor who served during the Rick Snyder gubernatorial tenure. 

In Michigan there have been racial disparities in federal coronavirus aid to businesses. In 2020, the nonprofit group Accountable.US reported that 90% of businesses owned by people of color “have been, or will likely be, shut out of the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program].’” Overall, only 12% of Black and Latino business-owner applicants had secured relief requested from Small Business Association (SBA) programs, including the PPP.

Accountable.US found last summer that Michigan’s 13th and 14th congressional districts, which are largely composed of Detroit and are majority African American, were “shortchanged” by the PPP. In one Accountable.US study, the 14th District ranked among the top highest percentage of Black residents left behind by PPP. In another, the 13th ranked among the poorest districts neglected by PPP.

Hiram Jackson, a Detroit real estate developer, said that access to capital continues to be a challenge for many Black individuals and that the public and private sectors should “reimagine” their collaboration with the African American developers and small business owners. He said that banks and government institutions can benefit from offering capital to African Americans in a city that is nearly 80% Black.

“If you can’t develop a sense of urgency around Black entrepreneurship in Detroit, where can you develop a sense of urgency?” Jackson asked during the session entitled High Expectations, High Returns: Investing in Minority Entrepreneurs. “If our greatest asset is human capital, wouldn’t it make sense from a business perspective to invest in the largest asset class in Detroit?” 

In another session, Carla Walker-Miller, president and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services, LLC, said “a platform is a blessing” when speaking about racial equity during a conference session called “Racial Equity in the Workplace.”

Walker-Miller is the first Black Detroit-based distributor to handle a complete line of major electrical equipment. The engineer started a nonprofit organization in 2003 called The Water Access Volunteer Effort, which provides water bill assistance to low-income Detroit citizens and has distributed over $2 million to help more than 9,700 families.

“Once we are there, we have to be a voice for the voiceless,” said Walker-Miller. 



authored by Ken Coleman
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