Black entrepreneur group bridging biz community

Shareefah Abdullah opened her Vancouver business, Hot Ovations Communication Coaching and Training Co., in January. In an effort to spread the word of the services she provides, she increased her networking. Through that process, she met other black entrepreneurs and business people. So she founded Black Entrepreneurs of Clark County to offer free networking and provide resources and visibility to the area’s black business community that many, including other black entrepreneurs, may not be aware of.

“I’ve learned there are more minority entrepreneurs than one would think,” she said. “I believe that because our general demographics show that minorities are such a small percentage of our community that it is simply not expected, and I want to help minority entrepreneurs achieve greater visibility for themselves. I want them to feel confident about growing their visibility and doing big business in this community. Our presence is only going to grow.”

BECC, which Abdullah emphasizes is open to all regardless of race, residence or business, held its first meeting June 23. The group will hold its third meeting on Aug. 25 at Wells Fargo, 1800 Main St. in Vancouver. About 30 people have attended each free meeting, which features a guest speaker. But most importantly, said Abdullah, is the networking.

“Opportunities abound in our community to network, but largely (people have) to pay for that privilege,” she said. “And I believe that people should be able to network for free.

“We learn so much when we put ourselves in a room with other entrepreneurs and people who are experiencing similar struggles, challenges and successes; we learn that we are not alone.”

Jan Harte, business development specialist at the Washington State University Vancouver Small Business Development Center, said “For any group with common needs and interests, it is helpful to come together to provide visibility for themselves.” Of the challenges black- and minority-owned businesses face, Abdullah said discrimination and the difficulty of breaking into cliques remain.

Michele Cruse, a business development specialist at Wells Fargo, who has been involved with BECC from its inception, said, “A lot of small business owners do not know about resources that are available to grow their businesses.”

Harte said she is seeing the minority business community grow and be more successful.

“Compared with years past,” said Harte, “the people I am seeing are better prepared, more educated and motivated.”

Resources aimed at specifically aiding minority- and women-owned businesses include government contracting funds tagged for partnerships with minority- and women-owned businesses, and Washington’s Linked Deposit Program provides loans to minority- and women-owned businesses for up to 2 percent below market rate.

“They are informing themselves about what they can do to be successful and taking advantage of it,” said Harte.

Another goal of BECC is to create mentoring opportunities between those involved in the program.

“There is not a large amount of black entrepreneurs in Clark County, so we are trying to connect them,” said Cruse. “The vision is to help people connect and have mentorship opportunities.”

While the number of black-owned businesses make up a small percentage of the business community, their numbers are on the rise.

“There is a growing rich heritage of minority business owners in Clark County,” said Abdullah. “And BECC is a way for the greater community to understand and appreciate that presence.”

According to a U.S. Census Bureau’s 2002 survey of business owners, there were 1.2 million black-owned businesses in 2002, up 45 percent from 1997. And the Small Business Administration increased its loans to African-American business owners by 46 percent so far this year.

Abdullah has plans for expanded events for BECC next year and would eventually like to see the group have its own space to help black-owned businesses and the business community in general continue to thrive.

“It creates a stronger, richer community in general,” said Abdullah, regarding a strong minority business community. “More people feel welcome here when you see diverse faces. We gain a greater stronghold in this region when we show a rich diversity of people who are doing business and are providing products and services with which to do business.”