US Chamber’s Rick Wade To Black Business: ‘Reboot, Reinvent, Reimagine’ For A Post-COVID World

As the US Chamber of Commerce’s Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach, Rick C. Wade plays a pivotal role in positioning companies, large and small, to take care of business as they grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For two years, he has been busy initiating programs to forge diverse relationships and partnerships for the world’s largest business organization representing 3 million firms. Over the past two months, however, Wade has been engaged in everything from rallying the business community to lobby Congress to replenish stimulus funding to holding conference calls to help companies put employees back to work.

As a senior adviser to President Obama and Deputy Chief of Staff at Commerce during The Great Recession, the Lancaster, South Carolina, native intimately knows how such crises can devastate black businesses. That’s why he’s spent considerable focus on helping African American entrepreneurs gain access to immediate financial and strategic resources while guiding them to remake their firms for a post-COVID environment.

“There’s nothing more urgent than short-term measures to keep businesses alive. That has to be our No. 1 objective. As we’re doing this, we have to recognize that the American economy is being redesigned and we can’t afford to be left out of that redesign. You got to take the initiative to reboot, reinvent, reimagine,” he asserts, citing healthcare, tech, and global business as prospective entrepreneurial hotspots.

The following are edited excerpts of Black Enterprise’s interview with Wade on today’s unpredictable business environment.

US Chamber of Commerce
Doug Parker, Chairman and CEO of American Airlines Group, Inc. and Wade at the 2020 Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

Black Business Needs Long-Term Investment 

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 environment on your role at the Chamber?

A lot of what I do is making sure that we build an economy that’s diverse and inclusive, not just in terms of workforce, but access to funding and opportunities for African American- and other minority-owned business, and to the extent that we are inclusive in our policy advocacy on Capitol Hill. So the urgency, immediacy, intensity of this work is so important because, as we’ve seen, this pandemic could have a disproportionate and adverse impact on the African American business community as well as other minority communities.

With the second tranche of funding for PPP that started on April 27 and new provisions for financing through Minority Depository Institutions and Community Development Financial Institutions [CDFIs}, have you been encouraged by the availability of capital to black- and minority-owned businesses?

We all are very interested in data and being able to measure the impact of these funds, which we don’t know yet. Due to the provisions of providing the $60 billion to CDFIs and minority depository institutions, credit union, et cetera, these are places where minority enterprises are more likely to have open relationships. So I’ve been hearing encouraging news that that process has been working but that is a first step to what has to be a longer-term investment to make sure that minority enterprises across the country are not left behind.

The recent MetLife -US Chamber study found that only one-third of small businesses have applied or tried to apply for a PPP loan. So what can you do in your role to just encourage more small businesses and minority businesses to apply for the PPP funding?

I think in the short term, we have to consider the outreach that we have been doing, literally on a day-to-day basis, to make sure black-owned companies understand the application process and know that they’re eligible. I have been leading calls and been on calls with organizations from fraternities and sororities to faith communities and other organizations trying to get the word out. We’ve also been working closely with one of our partners, the Minority Business Development Agency [MBDA] and their minority business development centers across the country to engage minority firms at every level possible and give them the technical support they need to be successful in the application process.

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Wade with members of the Minority Business Development Agency

So how should business owners position their companies post-crisis?

We’ve got to think short term because we have an immediate problem and if we don’t address it my fear is that a lot of minority businesses won’t survive. But we also found that we must think long term and figure out this whole broader access to capital issue, and not just from the lending institutions, but private equity.

One of the areas that I’ve had a lot of experience at the Department of Commerce is following foreign direct investment. How do we look at every piece of capital and build a structure that is a very diverse structure in terms of capital access for black-owned enterprises? What about joint ventures? What about acquisitions? What about new structures for partnerships? Also, reimagining business infrastructure and restructuring how we access capital to do business. There’s going to be a lot of innovations that come out of this new normal world that we live in. I want to make sure that African American businesses are thinking and leaning forward in providing business solutions to these challenges that we are confronted with.

So your message to black business is to do what they need to do to stay alive today but at the same time, focus on what’s going to be the new, new economy?

Yes. There’s going to be the new economy. How can we fit in this new design model of the future? I’ll give you an example. I had a call with barbershops and beauty salons and trying to get them connected because we know the important role they play in our social and organizational structure. We are trying to get them connected to PPP and other resources to keep them alive. In reimagining our community, I then ask what is the role of barbershops in terms of healthcare information? There’s a study I found in The New England Journal of Medicine where barbershops were used to convey information about hypertension to black men, coupled with their medication, and there was significant improvement of hypertension among black men.

So when I say lean forward, how can we re-examine and reimagine the businesses that we have to help address some of these underlying structural, historical challenges that have always existed in the black community? And I think that presents opportunities. For example, having pharmacies co-located at churches or in barbershops to give people the ability to access prescription drugs as well as educate them on healthy eating and lifestyles.

So based on your role and what you’re communicating, now is not the time to stand still and look for saviors because in a certain sense, like in every environment, we must be our own cavalry.

That’s right. You got to take it upon yourself, take the initiative to reboot, reinvent, reimagine. And in my role at the largest business organization in the world, I want to support black entrepreneurs and help them create these innovative new approaches. So we have tremendous access. So what are the innovative partnerships that we could create with small and big businesses to help provide solutions that’s a win-win for both small businesses as well as corporate America?

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NBA legend and entrepreneur Isiah Thomas and Wade at the AT&T lunch during 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend


We Must have A Seat At The Policymaking Table

One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it fully communicates the importance for black business owners to be involved in politics and policy, which are the drivers of immediate solutions.

I regularly convene all the diverse chambers—the black, Hispanic and Asian chambers—to get them connected to the policies at the federal level and helping them to adjust as it cascades down to the state and local level., we have to be in the room at the table as policies are being constructed.

That’s one of the big value areas of the Chamber. We’re the voice of business as related to Congress, the state level as related to legislatures, and local level related to city councils. This is where the design concept of policy begins. Our work begins with politics, and it ends with policy and accountability. Oftentimes we vote and think, “That’s it.” We have to make sure we are part of that design of the laws, regulations, and policies being promulgated and the results that come from laws and regulations and policies already implemented. There’s a tremendous gap there.

So in designing this new paradigm, do you believe that black businesses need to make a pivot to global markets?

We’re not in the room during the global conversation, considering that 95% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States. So if we really want to think about how we could peak in the future, we’ve got to think and be global. Oftentimes I’m trying to be a bridge at the Chamber, not just in the United States. The American Chambers of Commerce are in over 120 countries around the world. So our footprint is not just domestic but is also global.

Rick C. Wade
US Chamber President Suzanne Clark, Howard University President Wayne Frederick and Wade with next-gen scholars

Keeping The Diverse Talent Pipeline Flowing

In terms of the current environment, how do you move forward with your next-Gen Initiative and the role of HBCUs?

For the last two summers, I’ve focused on next-gen scholars from HBCUs around the country. That program is really about internships and creating a talent pipeline in hopes that these young people will look at business policy advocacy and working in business, and working in corporate America as a career path. We’re going to continue that in this new virtual world.

The other part is how do we engage HBCU leadership as we develop pathways forward for business in our economy? We hosted last year over 60 HBCU presidents at the Chamber and the conversation about the future of higher education in business. So the role of HBCUs is extremely important as we think about not just the workforce of tomorrow but finding entrepreneurs and solving some of the top challenges that we have in our society. How do we move to research at HBCUs from innovation into commercialization? We ultimately create this inclusive economy. This is a really important partnership. In fact, the first time ever in the history of the Chamber, we have the first president of a university on that board; Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick.

What are some examples of how you are engaging HBCUs?

We are looking at how to work with faculty and connect them to some of the policy centers within the Chamber. I recently brought Tuskegee University to participate in our largest summit, the Aviation Summit. We seek to develop a business ecosystem in and around Tuskegee considering they’re one of the largest producers of aerospace engineers. I was thrilled to get them engaged in the summit that included pretty much every CEO of every airline across the industry in America. Whether it is aviation, technology, healthcare or pharmaceutical manufacturing, connectivity to that industry produces opportunities for us to create jobs.

2019 HBCU Week, White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities dinner and forum on the Future of Business and Education (Photo by Joshua Roberts / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

What are some of the other initiatives in which you are focused?

I’m really, really proud of our engagement with the Kellogg Foundation around the Business Case for Racial Equity. Again, this is something I believe demonstrates that the Chamber is leaning in on this issue. Prior to the pandemic, we were having roundtable conversations with business leaders, owners, and stakeholders in Mississippi, New Mexico, and Michigan. I wanted to point that out because we have to deal with racial equity from a business perspective if we’re going to close the equity gap in our economy. Companies will understand that if we close this gap, the economy wins. We look forward to expanding on that in the future.

Another unique program that I put together is called the Business Huddle, convening professional athletes with corporate CEOs and helping them understand how to expand their firms and become more competitive in their businesses. I wanted to mention those things because it gives you a sense of the breadth and depth of the Chamber’s reach. We have an extraordinary footprint where we can be an advocate for diversity, inclusion, access, equity, capital from all of these different lenses.