Economic challenge for black communities Author describes new opportunities

Q&A

September 21, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

When Robert Wallace looks at the corner stores in the South Baltimore neighborhood of his youth, he sees missed opportunity. Though serving mostly black customers, few stores are owned by blacks, he says.

He found that such is the case nationwide while researching his recently published book, "Black Wealth through Black Entrepreneurship" (Duncan & Duncan). In the book, he argues that recapturing missed economic opportunity is fundamental to addressing much of the hopelessness found among black youths today.

Mr. Wallace, 36, has an MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He co-manages a computer systems integration company, ECS Technologies Inc., in Baltimore and conducts workshops on economic empowerment and starting a business.

QUESTION: Why has the black community as a whole missed out on sharing a fair share of the economy?

ANSWER: The main reason is racism. Centuries of being oppressed or told you can't compete equally has created barriers of the mind. Many in the community feel they just can't do it.

If you were told a million times you can't achieve your goals, it would have an effect on you.

Then there are the barriers that society has created; institutional racism. Look at the Wall Street Journal study published this month showing blacks were disproportionally laid off by companies during the last recession. That confirms to me the institutional barriers blacks face.

Q: What's needed for blacks to achieve a greater share of the economic pie?

A: We need a movement similar in magnitude to the 1960s civil rights effort, but on the economic front. The problems black communities face -- drugs, violence -- are directly tied to the communities' inability to control their economic destiny.

Q: What are the challenges the black community needs to address to bolster economic power?

A: First, there is the issue of business development and economic empowerment -- it must be at the top of the agenda. Second, the community must get on with recapturing the local economies.

Even now most of the local economies, the drugstores, dry cleaners, record stores and such, aren't controlled by blacks. Recapturing them is what will give the local communities the leverage to grow and a foundation by which to effectively compete in the mainstream economy.

To have any chance in the mainstream, you must control your local economy. Then we must nurture joint ventures between mainstream companies and minority-owned businesses. But, the arrangement must always be a win-win situation for each. It won't work, prosper or last unless it's set up this way.

My next point may seem contradictory, but it's not. We must aggressively match the financial strength and market appeal of black athletes and entertainers with the black community's entrepreneurial talent. There is a high concentration of financial strength among black entertainers and athletes.

A big problem in the black business community is capitalization; you need capital to build and grow.

Next there is my idea I call sports transmutation. All it means is we must focus our best . . . into business and commerce and de-emphasize the sports and entertainment channels. Far too many of our young people aspire to those avenues and don't even consider the entrepreneurial and business channels.

You can't count the number of rap groups out there in the black community. But you are hard pressed to name a business started by a young, black business professional.

Q: So what is the best advice you can give a black person who aspires to a business career?

A: You need to look beyond, not at, the bars that prevent you from your goal. Racism is the biggest bar; heavy baggage.

But if you look at the West Indian blacks who have come to this country, they have done very well. They don't have the baggage of people who have come up through the slavery institution. If you're always looking at the bars of racism, you empower your adversaries.

You also need to maintain a positive mental attitude; be grateful for what you do have. Next, identify your own specialized skill and learn everything you can about that skill. Then you've got to build a support or advisory group, people who have experience in business and will be there to keep you going.

Q: You argue that a big problem in the black community today is the fact that youths are too channeled into sports. What advice would you give to a young black man or woman who tells you they have focused their energies on forging a career in sports because it seems the best way out of economic hardship?

A: You must assess if you're outstanding in sports because it is a natural gift, or because you spend more time honing that particular skill. Do you spend more time on the basketball court than in the library? Our young people must get on a dual track. You have to have an academic, an intellectual, game plan with the athletics. This strategy minimizes your risks and maximizes your options.

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