In a virtual roundtable earlier this month with a group of Black Chambers of Commerce leaders from across the country, Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen discussed the challenges many Black entrepreneurs face since the coronavirus pandemic hit a year ago.
The conversation focused on both getting control of COVID-19 and at the same time how the American Rescue Plan being rolled out by the Biden-Harris administration aims at helping small businesses recover from the hits they took as the economy collapsed over the last 12 months.
During a virtual call with BET.com three members of the Atlanta Black Chambers, a non-profit Black business advocacy organization, Melvin Coleman, executive director, Miguel Lloyd, vice president of marketing and communications, and Michael Hill, president and CEO, discussed the roundtable and how they hope the new presidential administration will benefit Black businesses as they continue to climb up during a recession.
BET.com: I listened to the roundtable last week with Vice President Harris and Secretary Yellen and they addressed quite a few things relevant to Black businesses and their survival. What would you say are the main things that need to be addressed right away?
Melvin Coleman: Capital. Financial resources to ensure they survive this critical time that could take them down. So that seems to be the focus, and it definitely should be because it is about time, time to get to the other side.
Michael Hill: Yes, access to capital, and I’m talking about recurring capital. Many people from the last administration and a few people from the current administration are talking about the PPP (Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program) and the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) program. As you recall, when the EIDL program initially rolled out it was still being constructed; many businesses were promised that if they signed up for that program, they would have access to $10,000. But as it rolled out, it added various restrictions.
So it is about how policies are written, and that has been a historical challenge since Reconstruction as it relates to different set aside programs, as we’ve had economic disruptions. You can go through any set aside that happened during an economic downturn, and you will always pervasively see where African Americans have been left out, and a lot of it has to do with that they were not prepared or structured for the opportunity. So in terms of what I expect, I want to see who’s at the table to ensure that while we’re in the current write-up period, we have input in shaping policies that reflect our communities' situations.
BET.com: The Biden administration has outlined investment in Black businesses as part of its “Build Back Better” platform. But what should that look like from your point of view?
Hill: From my perspective, a majority of our businesses need to start at $10,000-plus. Many of the local programs that we’ve seen throughout the state of Georgia, and Southeast have had averages of $1,000 reimbursement or $1,000 in grant-based programming. One of the things I’m advocating for is that our businesses not only get loans, but grants, free and clear based on the industry you’re in, skewing the amount toward the industry and the length of time they’ve experienced losses.
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Miguel Lloyd: To Michael’s point, grant opportunities are important. In the first round (of PPP funding) many African American businesses did not benefit from that for various reasons. Some of that is systematic, some of that is cultural. Some of us just didn’t believe that we would be able to qualify. So what we find is that some of that had some merit and some of it didn’t.
So ultimately, the goal here is to pivot and understand that this is the new normal. Everyone’s waiting for us to get back to normal; we need to operate as if this is the new normal. Behaviors are changing, the ways people move businesses are adjusting. Part of the business model for restaurants is delivery; corporations are now finding that they can cut massive amounts of their budgets by not having people in their offices. That is very important and I think we’ve learned that in the last year.
BET.com: Melvin, you asked about the $15 billion in grants for small businesses from the American Rescue Plan. But is the outreach and technical assistance that Secretary Yellen talked about enough? What needs to happen to make that tangible for you and others?
Coleman: It needs to get down to the street level in terms of the folks who are executing, making sure that the right people have access and getting the impact and the outcomes that we want.
Hill: In this round, you have monies that are now finally going to states and municipalities. In the first round, it only went to states with cities that had 500,000-plus populations, so when you break that out, statistically, it only went to major urban areas. In the South, that would leave Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, maybe Nashville. No cities or municipalities in South Carolina, none in Alabama. So you have a lot of African American businesses that were on the outskirts of Atlanta, in the state of Georgia, rural businesses that didn’t even get any financial support.
The challenge is that once it’s been marked up at the federal level and it comes down to the state, the states add additional regulations on how you access the dollars. So we’re having discussions with the economic-based groups. They can talk about it from a statistical and analysis-based view.
BET.com: Well, Michael, to your point, where things aren’t getting to a lot of businesses because of regulation, state and municipal, is a big chunk of this red tape? Is everybody experiencing that?
Hill: Absolutely, particularly in the south. You have traditional systematic systems designed to make sure it gets to who it traditionally got to. So you’re right, it is red tape, and it varies from state to state, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.
Lloyd: I think another thing we need to understand is that Republicans largely run these states and municipalities. To Michael’s point that red tape is really run by statehouses, it’s run by people who don’t really want to see the African American community really excel. So that’s something we need to keep an eye on as well. So as you start to see opportunities in which governors and county commissioners and people in those positions are African American, we need to make sure we are supporting them and at the same time holding them accountable.
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BET.com: Not a lot of Paycheck Protection Funds went to Black businesses under Donald Trump. Do you believe that now such funds will be easier to come by with this new administration, given all the things they talked about in the roundtable?
Coleman: My confidence comes from when you learn from the first time or even the second time. So you get to a level where, okay, we’ve got to be better at this now that we’ve seen it not work as well as we would have liked. So just based on having previous experience in the full access and distribution of these resources, yeah, I believe it’s going to be better.
BET.com: Now, how do you get this administration to do better?
Coleman: Apply the knowledge from the effort put forth by the folks who came before them because everybody sees what happens in terms of major institutions not giving access to the little guy. We’ve addressed that, and so we expect to see a better outcome.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo: Getty Images