African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, with John Harmon, Oct 26, 2020

This was our second meeting since shutting down for COVID in March 2020.  The remote gathering shortened the meetings by eliminating the pleasant lunches we had so enjoyed at Blooming Grove Inn. 

Because our guest had an afternoon engagement elsewhere, we held the regular symposium business until after the presentation.  Shan introduced Mr. Harmon, who spoke more in a question and answer format than as a formal presentation. 

Harmon explained that he had helped found the Chamber in 2007, after serving as president of the MetroTrenton Chamber from 1999 to 2009.  The MetroTrenton Chamber remains, though many tasks also addressed by the new African American Chamber since 2009.  Joe noted with regret that collaboration could be so much more fruitful than competition for limited resources.

Tenth Annual Circle of Achievement Awards Gala, February 6, 2020

We started with questions about the impact of COVID on Black-owned businesses.  He indicated that, with high rates of COVID infection and mortality among African Americans, the impact had been severe.  Too many business owners had inadequate insurance and had been skipping regular preventative care.  The Chamber was working on improving health care among Black business owners and employees, as well as addressing underperformance in the sector on Education, Business practice, and Work Force management/development.

Rhett mentioned reading a Citibank study warning that some 30-40% of Black-owned businesses will not reopen after the pandemic.  Citibank cited a lack of equitable participation in the economy even in good times as a cause of this vulnerability.

Harmon affirmed that, in New Jersey, 93% of Black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships, and therefore very vulnerable to illness.  The net worth of these business owners averages about $4500, while white business owners average net worth of about $250,000.  The combination of racism and economic disadvantage leave Black-owned businesses very vulnerable indeed.

The Chamber lobbies for financial incentives and required government contracting with Black-owned business as part of their support for the sector.  Governments prefer race-neutral procurement laws, but these, through existing networks of friendship and business acquaintance overwhelmingly privilege white-owned businesses.  The Chamber wants to see procurement laws with incentives for Black-owned, and Woman-owned businesses (and of course, both).

We had heard in September about the Capital Philharmonic’s hard work to get Payroll Protection dollars from the Federal government.  We asked Harmon how PPP had worked for his Chamber members. 

Federal policy mandated that PPP funds be channeled through banks, which created a block for Chamber members.  Banks went to their best customers first, so PPP funds ran out before they reached most Black-owned businesses.  The Chamber worked with the NJ Economic Development Authority to provide technical assistance to get Chamber members and other Black-owned businesses into the PPP pool.  Out of 800 members, 300 got into the PPP program.

State aid did provide some help also by prioritizing 169 opportunity zones for loans.  This program targeted areas with many Black- or Hispanic-owned enterprises for loans and grants of $5000-$15,000.

Artists paint BLACK LIVES MATTER mural in Trenton, in front of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey headquarters on W. State St. in Trenton..

Harmon explored further what makes sole proprietorships so vulnerable to economic disruption.  First, he said, they cannot scale their businesses up or down to meet changes in demand or supply.  This makes it very hard for them to align their business practices with available resources.  He works through the Chamber to persuade municipalities to invest in these business owners, through training and contracting both.

He also pointed out that sole proprietorships may have higher production costs due to their limited access to capital.  Capital access is another barrier to “playing in the big leagues” of competitive government contracting.  Businesses need to be able to wait out official procurement and payment schedules, which many small businesses cannot afford to do.

He noted that 30% of his Chamber members are not Black-owned.  He has big and small businesses, and some large donors who support the Chamber.  He wants very much to increase the competitiveness of Chamber members by providing additional capital.

We asked what actions concerned citizens can take to support these efforts.  Harmon indicated that he appreciated the chance to talk about his work and his goals for the Chamber and encouraged us to spread the word.  He was open to building relationships with the Symposium and its members in this effort, thinking about the possibility of planning some actions together to introduce Black business owners to new opportunities.  He left us with an upbeat sense of how business in the state generally would improve by becoming more inclusive, leveraging rather than squandering Black entrepreneurial talent.

After Mr. Harmon signed off, members approved the minutes from September 2020.  George Pearson reported $1834 in the treasury, and annual dues coming due.  Members were asked to mail their $35 dues payments to George.

The meeting adjourned at 12:45. We will meet again Monday, November 30, 2020, (Zoom info below), to hear from Chris Cirkus, manager of the Trenton Farmers Market.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary