Building Supportive Ecosystems for Black-and-Brown-owned Businesses in OmahaFeb 01, 2022 11:57AM ● By Josefina Loza
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Jose “Sammy” Puentes has worked in concrete for 28 years. His job involves repairing roads, sidewalks, and driveways; mixing concrete; injection work;
These days the concrete industry is in a time of flux, an opportune point for starting a business. Puentes, a 46-year-old Mexican immigrant, had already started picking up side jobs here and there but he couldn’t keep up with all of the work. So becoming a small business owner seemed like a natural fit. In 2017, he established JBP Concrete and Construction, LLC and had $250,000 in sales.
At one time or another, nearly everyone who is passionate about their work dreams of launching their own business, just like Puentes. Taking his fate into his own hands to create a concrete business the way he wanted was a calculated plan.
“I just kept thinking about it,” Puentes said, “…that I should start investing in my future, and my family’s future, and start thinking
So he turned to the Greater Omaha Chamber’s REACH program, which empowers entrepreneurs to scale their businesses by offering a 12-month mentoring program designed to move top-performing small and emerging construction businesses to higher levels of success.
“When I first started the business there were times when I thought I finally made it,” Puentes said. “And then there are days when you think, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ You get a little frustrated.”
In Puentes’ case, he had a business concept but needed assistance with his strategic goals in the areas of accounting and financing, logistics, operations, strategy, human resources, and legal issues—all areas in which many emerging minority business owners like Puentes have said they
Building supportive ecosystems for Black- and Brown-owned businesses has been at the forefront of Nebraska’s efforts in developing community wealth, for the business owners and the people they employ.
Prior to 2020, the share of new Black entrepreneurs was increasing, despite the fact that for the past 20 years the rate of new entrepreneurs overall has essentially been flat, the report noted.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, stressed minority-owned businesses.
The pandemic has made for a difficult landscape for most every small business owner, but the challenges and impact on minority-owned businesses have been even greater.
Black entrepreneurs are three times less likely to have their loan request approved than their white counterparts, according to The Kauffman Foundation’s Capital Access Report. The pandemic exacerbated the inequalities and became even more clear after the first round of PPE federal funding. In response, some nonprofits, local government entities, and private companies started identifying how they could help even the playing field when it comes to policies and funding for minority-owned small businesses and entrepreneurs.
More than 150 entrepreneurship advocacy groups and organizations across the country have joined the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in a coalition called Start Us Up, which urges policymakers to address the immediate and long-term needs of entrepreneurs. Several Omaha and state organizations—such as the Nebraska Enterprise Fund, Nebraska Business Development Center, and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development—are working to assist in the viability of minority-owned businesses.
In October, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce launched a bilingual extension of its REACH program for small and emerging businesses serving the Omaha community. This expansion builds on the seven years of success the REACH program has had empowering entrepreneurs to scale their businesses, said Christian Espinosa Torres, program administrator of the Small and Emerging Small Business Program for the City of Omaha.
In 2020, the REACH program served more than 200 businesses with more than 2,800 hours of technical assistance and consulting. The result of that time was $7.45 million in direct contracts for REACH participants, including Puentes’ business. The bulk of that assistance was focused on minority business owners, with 51% of the assistance provided to Black entrepreneurs, and 29% to Latino-owned businesses.
Providing growth capital is the cornerstone of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 2020, the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber conducted a statewide study surveying 800 Latino small businesses in which it found that financial support and personnel were the two main needs in its business community.
“What’s different in the Latino community is immigration status,” said Yesenia Peck, president of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Many of our business owners don’t qualify for federal grant funding, so we had to advocate for them. [We met] with Govenor Ricketts to see what could be done so Latino businesses could qualify for federal support.”
As a result, the State of Nebraska issued a business ID number filing process for applicants in need of supplemental funding.
“Not every business in every community is built in the same way,” Peck said. “Not every business in every community has the same opportunities.”
Peck sees this work as essential to closing the racial wealth gap and creating equity of opportunity.
“Advocacy is key,” she said.
FINANCIAL WEALTH AT A GLANCE
According to Survey of Consumer Finances data, the median Black family has $24,100 in wealth. This is 12.7% of the $189,100 in wealth by the average white family.
In 2019, Fortune 500 CEOS, who earned approximately $14.8 million on average, included five Black people and 17 Latino people—less than 5% of the total. By contrast, these groups made up 44.1% of the U.S. workers who would benefit from a raise in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Blacks and Latinos comprise 31.9% of the U.S. population.
One indicator of racial disparities at the top of the U.S. earnings scale is the threshold for entry into the top 10 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, for white families to make it into this tier of earners in their racial group, they need to have annual income of at least $117,986—nearly twice as much as the threshold for Black families.
Midlands African Chamber Inc. was founded in 2020 out of a desire to help the new and growing businesses within its African and African American communities prosper. Nothing like the Midlands African Chamber dedicated to those in such communities existed for a five-state radius prior to its creation.
To carry this mission, the Midlands African Chamber serves as the voice of business and involves the public and private sectors in community leadership. It hopes to address three key issues.
While unemployment is low in the Omaha community, it’s almost two times higher for people of color. Midland African Chamber’s goal is to reduce the following unemployment gaps: 8.3% in Blacks; 5.7% in Latinos; and 3.1% in white, non-Hispanics.
One in 10 Iowa and Nebraska residents work multiple jobs, in comparison to the 1 in 20 nationally. The Omaha Community Foundation released research data in 2021 noting the large number of people who are working multiple jobs or underemployed, meaning they are working full-time but still living under the poverty line. In 2018, the U.S. Census reported that of the percentage of individuals in poverty 26.1% were Black; 20.6% were Latino; and 7.3% were white, non-Hispanic.
People of color have a median income that is $13,000 less than their white counterparts. This difference has grown by 18% since 2015. A 2018 Regional Equity Profile completed by Heartland 2050 found that even when education levels are equal, people of color earn less than white residents.
So what does that all mean?
“We understand that in order for our communities to cultivate a competitive and successful economic environment, we must create opportunities for mentorship, access to capital, education, and leadership training,” said Karine Sokpoh, president and founder of the Midlands African Chamber. “We share in the responsibility of helping one another achieve the American dream. We firmly believe that economic success is an integral part of the pursuit of happiness.”
Racial equality is economic equity and the Midlands African Chamber is committed to promoting the same through entrepreneurship in diverse communities. Midlands African Chamber serves as a host of diverse business owners with varied racial backgrounds, such as African and African Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, and Asians—be that American-born or foreign.
In the past year or so, the Midlands African Chamber evolved out of the landscape shaped by the pandemic; it assembled a working board of a dozen professionals in varied background—from business, finance, legal, marketing, communications, philanthropy, and community activism—who volunteer their time.
The Midlands African Chamber wants to attract and retain diverse talent in Nebraska by advancing racial and economic equity. Therefore, it offers in-person and online events, covering education, leadership development, business growth, and networking. It offers a business lecture series held virtually for members to connect directly with working professionals in small businesses at various capacities from business owners, physicians, and educators to financial and legal representatives.
To achieve its vision, the Midlands African Chamber created Pitch Black, which is designed to promote entrepreneurship in diverse communities in the Midwest. In August 2021, the business pitch competition had its first cohort of 20 applicants participate for an opportunity to win $10,000 in business funding.
Tony Cannon Jr., owner of One Security Solutions, a private security and surveillance company, was attracted to Midlands African Chamber because it was “filled with people that look like, and are doing business with, people like me.”
“The chamber was necessary for our business to grow and to develop different ways of doing business across the community,” Cannon said. “In my opinion, the chamber is doing a lot for the community and for local business owners as well.”
In the same breath, businesses owners of color are important to local communities as they drive innovation and social change, said Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network. He serves as the founder, president, and facilitator of this collaborative of residents, leaders, and organizations working to facilitate positive change in Omaha.
The goal of the Empowerment Network is to help Black-owned and North Omaha businesses employ more people, build more wealth, and thrive. In its 15 years, the Empowerment Network has evolved into a nationally recognized approach for community engagement, collaboration, capacity-building, and leadership development. It is focused on transforming the city by ways of “education, violence prevention, employment, arts and culture, housing, and health,” Barney said.
Barney worked more than 27 years in strategic planning, marketing, communications, community building, and facilitation. He said it occurred to him shortly after moving to Omaha in the early 2000s that the city needed to unify to advance North Omaha.
He met with more than 70 pastors, residents, and community leaders to bring about a vision at the first official Empowerment Network leadership meeting in September 2006. Since then the network has hosted youth summits, small group meetings with more than 400 teens, successful students, gang members, single mothers, parents, grandparents, and stakeholders.
It has created business opportunities to emerging startups and job training through the REVIVE Center. It has hosted several initiatives, such as Christmas in the Village; Monthly Village Community Meetings; Omaha 360 (violence prevention); the African American Leadership Conference; Step-Up Omaha! (the state’s largest youth employment initiative); Entrepreneurship Collaborative; and the North Omaha Cradle to Career Education Strategy.
It is helping facilitate a 30-year, five-phased project called the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which aims to rejuvenate the struggling historic area with affordable housing, tourist destinations, and economic development. Today, the collaborative involves more than 3,000 participants with more than 7,000 providing input into the community-based plan.
Barney realized that there was a dearth of funding and capital opportunities for minorities in Nebraska. As a result, the Empowerment Network aims to fill that gap by bringing together great minds, capital, and expertise in order to promote economic advancement in the community.
All of these programs are so necessary—especially in minority communities who may not know the resources available to them or how to access capital to grow their business, said Puentes.
JBP Concrete and Construction’s sales doubled to $500,000 in 2018, as Puentes had joined the REACH program. In 2019, the company hit more than $750,000 in sales, and 1.5 million was accounted for in 2020.
“I just want to keep growing my company. I want to keep growing my business for the guys who are working for me,” Puentes said. “I want to be able to have my own building. I want to be able to have an office in a building I’m not renting but instead one of my own. I want to build something for my children. I want them to work alongside me. If I could get that accomplished, then I would be really happy.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.