At the national town hall meeting Thursday hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on the first full day of its Annual Legislative Conference, the panelists’ messages were centered on entrepreneurship and innovation.
Despite the success of the Recovery Act that the Obama administration frequently touts, many African Americans around the nation, black entrepreneurs in particular, are still wondering when some of those stimulus dollars are going to trickle down to them.
Rick Wade, senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, discussed his efforts to help minority businesses connect with the federal government and state and local governments that are charged with disbursing the bulk of stimulus funds.
“I’ve been traveling all over the country to help spread the word and help minority companies have access to the technical assistance they need,” said Wade, who encouraged entrepreneurs to visit the Minority Business Development Agency’s 60 regional centers for guidance.
“We want to help you but you’ve got to come see us and let us know who you are. We want you in our database and we’ll help broker the relationships. We’re helping to create partnerships with small and larger companies so you can be competitive and succeed,” he said.
One of the more potentially lucrative opportunities is in broadband technology, explained Wade, and the Commerce Department is conducting what he called “pre-meetings” on the topic with African American companies before larger public meetings are held to help educate them about how to navigate what can be a difficult federal bureaucracy.
Health information technology and energy are also major growth areas, noted Melody Barnes, who serves as President Barack Obama’s domestic policy advisor and director of the Domestic Policy Council. She indicated that an initiative in that sector that “will be a huge opportunity for business people and our community” will soon be announced.
Barnes noted that the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pushing the country forward in terms of economics as a civil rights issue at the time of his death.
“We are there again and cannot afford to lose that opportunity. We have in front of us the chance to be at the table at the front end of a growth industry and sector,” said Barnes. “And if we don’t take advantage of it we’ll find that in five, ten, or 20 years from now, we’ll be looking back at renewable forms of energy, thinking about weatherization and all of the things that create job and wealth creation opportunities, wondering what happened and why we weren’t there. We are there and the goal is to take advantage of it.”
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk suggested that entrepreneurs explore opportunities to conduct business abroad, pointing out that 95% of the world’s consumers live outside of the United States and that 97% of the firms that export products and services are small businesses.
“A lot of them look like you and I but represent less than 5% of our exports. I look at that as huge opportunity for us working with Commerce, SBA and others to educate small businesses about the opportunities you have to grow your businesses by simply beginning to look at opportunities to export,” said Kirk, adding that www.ustr.gov is the place to start exploring that possibility.