A new collective amplifying the voices of Black business owners is forming in metro Detroit, backed with $1 million from TCF Bank.
Former city of Detroit executive Charity Dean leads the nonprofit Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance as president and CEO. The chamber of commerce-style organization formally launched with a media event late Friday morning at Cutter’s Bar & Grill in Eastern Market. The restaurant’s owner, Chuck Nolen, is the alliance’s board chair.
Conversations about coming together formally have been going on between founding members of the alliance for years, Dean said. But the group began meeting regularly on Tuesday nights last summer. Dean estimates 50-60 businesses have participated so far, though memberships don’t open up publicly until Friday.
“It really came from identifying a need for Black businesses — you know, this country has been built on systemic and structural racism and unfortunately we see the effects of it in everyday life,” Dean said. “From how our institutions engage with people of color to businesses of color. I saw it especially during the pandemic.”
Dean, whose mission in Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration during the coronavirus crisis was to help keep businesses afloat, left her position March 12 as director of the Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity for the alliance. Kimberly Rustem, chief policy adviser for Duggan, was selected to succeed Dean.
TCF Bank, which has created loan funds during the pandemic for small businesses, committed its donation to the MDBBA over five years of operation.
“Charity is, I believe, going to be the catalyst for this tremendous growth,” TCF Chairman Gary Torgow said during Friday’s announcement. “… We are fully committed to the opportunity to do everything we possibly can as an institution to do what banks are supposed to do, which is to support businesses like what’s going to happen here …”
The alliance also plans to do programming with the NAACP’s Detroit chapter and work with the Detroit Pistons later this year on grant-giving.
It will host events and educational programming unique to Black businesses, Dean said. The group will also push for public policy changes, priorities for which will be set once members join.
A business resource center with meeting and work space, printers and more for members is expected to open in downtown Detroit, though no lease is signed yet. The alliance also plans an online “Buy Black” directory of companies.
“After George Floyd died, a number of corporations and businesses were trying to figure out how to support Black business owners, and while that was encouraging, a lot of times what happens is a moment passes and then people forget,” Dean said.
Costs to join the organization are: $300 annually for Black-owned micro businesses, with one or zero employees; $600 annually for small businesses up to 49 employees; and $1,200 for businesses with 50 and more employees. There’s also a $50-a-year membership for members 21 years and younger. Non-Black businesses can be ally members for $200, $400 or $800 a year depending on size.
The alliance is bringing in young adults because engaging them is important to building generational wealth, Dean said, as a racial wealth gap stems from decades of racism and discrimination.
Black entrepreneurship has been on the rise, with the number of Black-owned businesses increasing 35 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to a 2020 report from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Bank of America. And yet the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted Black businesses that were already seeing wealth and opportunity gaps with white-owned businesses, and were less likely to be granted access to traditional financing streams. As of 2019, fewer Black Americans held business equity than white Americans — 5 percent versus 15 percent, according to McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm. Pre-pandemic, 58 percent of Black-owned businesses reported financial distress compared with 27 percent of white-owned, McKinsey said.
For Dean, her work with businesses during the pandemic underscored these gaps, but they weren’t new. She’s an entrepreneur herself, starting Dean Law Firm in 2018, and she comes from a line of them. Her mother owns a publishing company and is a Realtor. Her grandparents ran a travel agency, real estate agency and tax services business.
The MDBBA will collaborate with other organizations in similar lines of work: entrepreneur education nonprofits, for instance, and the overarching small business development coalition Detroit Means Business. It’s also talking with the Detroit Regional Chamber.
Other local advocacy organizations include the Detroit chapter of the National Business League, which merged with the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce in 2017, and the Detroit-based Michigan Minority Contractors Association.
“We will work with Build Institute and we will work with TechTown and connect our members to those resources,” Dean said. “There’ll be some programs we will do, but we’re not going to pretend to be something that we’re not. We are an alliance. And so what we will do is advocate for our members.
“In my mind, if even more organizations pop up to serve the Black business community, that means we’re doing a good job. We’re going to all work together to serve Black businesses. There’s not enough. We need more. We need help.”
The founding alliance members have expertise in various areas that they want to use to help guide other businesses, including marketing, back-of-office and getting through city permitting processes, board chair Nolen said.
“There was no … one unified voice to express our concerns, our challenges, and we thought we’d get together and start the organization,” Nolen said.