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Nicole Obi, MCP ’95, SM ’95, urges Black entrepreneurs to find support in their business networks.

Nicole Obi, MCP ’95, SM ’95, President and CEO, BECMA

“It’s really important to have somebody who’s standing up for you in rooms where you aren’t there,” said Obi. “It’s something that we should do more of.”

These themes of community and advocacy were explored during a Speaker Series event that was part of MIT’s 50th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration earlier this month. Steven Branch (Senior Associate Director, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, MIT Sloan Career Development Office) moderated a lively discussion on Black business in Boston. Panelists included Obi, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA); Segun Idowu, chief of economic opportunity and inclusion for the City of Boston; Greg Janey, president and CEO of Janey Construction; and Joseph Charles, founder and CEO of Rock City Pizza.

Attendees from the MIT and Greater Boston communities gathered to hear from these experts and network with one another as they celebrated Dr. King’s legacy of fighting for economic equity.

A legacy of advocacy

At the beginning of the conversation, Idowu was quick to mention the variety of Black businesses that exist in Boston. He has found that people tend to think of smaller businesses when discussing Black companies. However, Black people have owned successful businesses of all sizes and in all industries since the United States was founded.

“Everything that we believe and understand about other communities and businesses is also true for Black business,” Idowu remarked as he emphasized the immense contributions that Black business owners have made to Boston.

Janey pointed out that this early success can be credited, in part, to the formation of strong advocacy organizations that have provided resources and training to Black business owners throughout the years. Today, with Obi at its helm, BECMA builds upon these organizations’ legacies by working to build Black wealth in Massachusetts.

Obi explained that BECMA was formed in response to a finding from The Color of Wealth in Boston, a 2015 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The study noted that the median net worth of Black households was $8 in comparison to a median net worth of $247,500 for white households in Boston. Black community members came together and discussed how they could approach closing this racial wealth gap. In response to these conversations, several prominent Black business leaders formed BECMA.

As a member-based statewide organization, BECMA champions Black businesses through policy advocacy and financial support. BECMA also supports businesses in their procurement contracts with buyers and helps business owners get a greater equity stake in their firms. In addition, BECMA works to help Black individuals obtain employment as well as appointments to decision-making positions on boards and commissions.

“Where decisions are being made is really important,” Obi noted.

From left to right: Steven Branch, Nicole Obi, Joseph Charles, Greg Janey, and Segun Idowu at the MLK Speaker Series event.

Credit: 2B Media LLC

 

Supporting Black businesses

Idowu spoke about the role of the city in supporting Black entrepreneurs, many of whom do not have access to capital to establish and grow their businesses. They often struggle to obtain loans from banks. In his work in Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration, Idowu strives to help fill these gaps.

“We know that our businesses are economic drivers and lead to the health and welfare of all of our communities and stability of our communities,” Idowu said. “And so, it's incumbent on the city to ensure that we are streamlining processes to make it easier to not just start a business, but also to scale the business.”

As part of these efforts, the city has been giving grants to small businesses, with a large portion of that funding going to Black businesses. They recently launched the S.P.A.C.E. (Supporting Pandemic Affected Community Enterprises) grant program to support businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grantees can use the funds to assist them with renting vacant commercial spaces across the city. In the future, the city plans to help small businesses build wealth through acquiring their own property.

Obi was quick to point to the benefits of utilizing advocacy organizations like BECMA to help people gain access to capital. She gave an example of a situation in which BECMA helped a Black entrepreneur refinance a loan for a significantly lower interest rate.

“Don’t go it alone,” said Obi to the entrepreneurs in the room. “It’s highly inefficient and ineffective. Definitely be part of something.”

Idowu closed the conversation by telling Black entrepreneurs about actions that they can take to benefit their collective business community. He stressed the importance of voting and electing leaders who are committed to equity and inclusion. He also encouraged them to invest in businesses and organizations that represent Boston’s Black community.

“Please join, invest,” said Idowu. “Because we’re the only ones that can build our communities.”

For more info Haley Bierman Development Writer (617) 253-7318