Korean, Black Leaders Foster Entrepreneurs

African-american Store Ownership A Mutual Goal

December 07, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones , brent.jones@baltsun.com

About a decade ago, Inwook Ben Hur opened a small grocery store in Baltimore after relocating to the area to go to graduate school at Coppin State. Hur, like many native Koreans who immigrated here, founded his business with the idea of making enough money to put his children through college, then turning control over to the kids to maintain for the next generation.

In the past seven years, though, all three of Hur's children have graduated from school, and none want to have anything to do with running the Eager Street store. Now ready to get out of the business and looking for a buyer, Hur is focusing on the surrounding community, and he - along with Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. - are part of a group of local leaders en route to Seoul, South Korea, to take part in a 10-day entrepreneurial workshop, a trip they expect will provide tips on the transfer process.

Hur said he wants an African-American to take over his store; Conaway wants to promote black entrepreneurship. They have known each other for decades and share a vision of turning over hundreds of longtime Korean-American small businesses in the city - many owned by people who, like Hur, want out of the daily grind - to ambitious, young African-Americans.

Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., the court clerk's son, will also attend the workshop, to be held at a university and include representatives from countries in Africa, Asia and Europe, Hur said. The Conaways and Hur, who is president of the Korean Society of Maryland, said they will hold several presentations outlining the findings from their trip at Coppin and Morgan State universities.

"We're going to get people fired up about going into business," the elder Conaway said. "It's a shame that so much of our money leaves our community. There are resources for us to keep it in our community. Now, a lot of people may not want to work that hard, but we're going to find people that really are into it and get them set up."

Hur said dozens of his Korean-American business associates are putting their stores up for sale after years of working 12- and 14-hour days. Hur added that many of his colleagues' offspring, like his, have no interest in continuing the businesses.

"Some of the kids now, they've been college-educated here, and they want the more professional jobs," Hur said. "It's time to cut off the chain."

Frank Conaway Sr.'s interest in black ownership goes back to his time in the General Assembly, when he said he was one of the few pushing for entrepreneurial programs. He and Hur estimate that a small grocery store efficiently run in the city could net the owner $100,000 a year.

"Most African-American legislators or elected officials still are pushing education, and they're forgetting about business. Small business is what runs this country," he said. "A lot of people think it's General Motors, Ford, but that's not so.

"So you've got [black] people working very hard and only making $25,000, $30,000 a year, so it might behoove them to go into their own business and work hard for 20, 25 years. It's a sacrifice for their children. ... Koreans don't want it anymore. And we should be taking it over."

The connection between Korean-American businesses and the African-American community in Baltimore goes back to the late 1970s, when immigrant-owned grocery stores, dry cleaners, takeout restaurants and liquor stores flooded traditionally black neighborhoods, at times causing strained relationships. In the late 1990s, tensions between immigrant grocers and black residents heightened after a cluster of city shootings and robberies that left two Koreans dead.

The elder Conaway said some blacks have resented Koreans for opening businesses in their community, but that "we had the opportunity to do it, but we didn't do it. And the Koreans had nothing against African-Americans, and in fact, want to see us do better."

The advantage to buying existing Korean-American restaurants or stores, he says, is an already established customer base and name recognition, citing the Lake Trout restaurants as examples. As for financing, he said he hopes the trip will provide a blueprint for how business owners could work with potential buyers on yearly payment plans.

"It could move on to bigger business," he said. "It doesn't always have to end at the corner store. This isn't just about building individual owners. It's about building a community."

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