Networking A Key Business Resource During Hard Economic Times

August 29, 2011

Business

BY:  George Addison

“There’s no better time to be a minority business owner in America than right now!  The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that minority owned businesses are the fastest growing business segment of the U.S. economy.  The growth of Black owned businesses is triple that of the national rate, and the number of Hispanic owned businesses grew by nearly 44% from 2002 to 2007, the most recent years for the census bureau survey of business owners.  Asian and Native American firms are also growing at a very rapid rate.  In our recovering economy that growth translates into jobs.”

Joset B. Wright, President

 National Minority Supplier Development Council

Each year I travel across the country to visit networking events to learn firsthand how small businesses and non-profits are overcoming various economic challenges.  Not long ago I visited the Minority Business Expo in Lexington, Kentucky and the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council Marketplace of Opportunities.  I was greeted by an air of optimism, renewed purpose and growth as company after company expressed how they were staying the course and moving forward despite the financial problems routinely being discussed in Washington, DC.  A number of those I spoke with saw their participation in this and other networking events as a vital part of their overall marketing strategy, as well as a unique opportunity to develop and expand on new and existing business relationships.  They also felt these events where particularly important during stressful periods when the economy is sluggish.

Sonya Walton, Economic Inclusion Manager for Messer Construction says, "MBE events are important for identifying minority contractors." Photo Courtesy: Messer Construction Company

In 2009 Ventureneer, a training and support company for small business owners, social entrepreneurs and non-profits, conducted a survey that stated “when resources are down, owners of small companies make greater use of the most popular local external resources by: joining more state/local organizations and networking more in person and online.”

Sonya Walton, Economic Inclusion Manager for the Cincinnati-based Messer Construction Company, said they believe their sponsorship of events like the Lexington MBE are very important for reengaging with and identifying minority contractors for business opportunities.  Walton added, “I’ve seen more minority vendors participating as exhibitors and overall attendance has increased. It’s always good to get connected and stay connected to make sure we understand who’s out there looking for work and how we can be of service to them.”

Typically, these networking events bring in a keynote speaker that shares his or her experience on growing their business or navigating

NBA Hall of Fame Basketball Player and Lexington Bluegrass MBE Keynote Speaker Oscar Robertson shares a moment with Louisville Metro Economic Development Manager Verna' Goatley. Picture Courtesy: BeeNetwork News.

rough financial challenges.  On this occasion, the Lexington, Kentucky Minority Business Expo asked National Basketball Association Hall of Fame basketball player Oscar Robertson to speak to attendees about the need to seize opportunity, stay persistent and relevant as they seek contracts and collaborations.  Besides being named one of the fifty greatest basketball players ever, Robertson is also known as a labor leader, entrepreneur and community activist.  He serves as owner and President of Orchem Corporation, a specialty chemical company, and OR Solutions – a facilities management company. 

Both companies are based in Cincinnati, Ohio. I recalled that some years earlier, Robertson appeared on my PBS syndicated television show “The National Black Business Report,” sharing the same message.  I asked Mr. Robertson if the message he shared was just as relevant today as it was in the late 80’s and early 90’s?  After a moment of reflection he stated, “ You have to take advantage of all opportunities.  It’s getting more difficult because of  financial problems in the world and the shifting of opportunity away from small businesses.  But it was small companies hiring people that made America great, and that’s what minority businesses want to do as well.  These events are still viable, but participants must follow-up to make sure its working.”

Educational organizations have also made their presence felt at these events.  Darryl Thompson, Economic Development Manager with Fayette County Public Schools says, “ These events afford me the opportunity to find legitimate companies interested in partnering with our district.  The benefit has been increased outreach and participation of a diverse group of vendors, as we strive to create positive economic impact for our communities.”   Carl Ledford, Diversity and Equity Manager for Jefferson County Public Schools, says his organization uses these events to network and engage more with African-American and other businesses, adding, “Most of the companies who have worked with us in the past are digressing because of their loss of business.  It behooves us to go out and find companies that can compete with some of the majority firms out there.”   You don’t have to look far to see how involved corporate sponsors are with MBE events.

Janet Beard, Vice President of Community Affairs with Fifth Third Bank, says

Ms. Beard says, "Fifth Third Bank is committed to helping small businesses and communities. Photo Courtesy: Fifth Third Bank

her organization has supported the Lexington MBE effort from the very beginning as a result of their commitment to helping small businesses and communities grow.  She has seen the event grow from a couple of rooms to using a major downtown venue.  She adds,“ What is important to us in spite of these tough economic times is making sure that we have the right resources, the right tools, the right speakers for such a time as this to make sure that we can help provide the necessary tools for people to be successful.”

Marita Willis, Vice President of Community Development for PNC Bank says, "PNC values networking opportunities." Photo Courtesy: Leadership Louisville Center

Marita Willis, Vice President of Community Development at PNC Bank, says her organization has participated for nearly ten years and values the network opportunities.  She further stated, “These events challenge you to follow-up and see what opportunities are out there.  People must remember that we are part of the economic engine and we can make it better by doing our part supporting and helping each other get to the next level.  It’s not always the dollar, sometimes it’s the in-kind service or brokering a relationship for someone else so they can get business or establishing working partnerships.”  

Lexington Minority Business Expo Chairman, Anthony Wright, said the expo has experienced growth over the years in spite of the economy, due in large part to great sponsorship.  Adding, “Economic climates like the one we are experiencing tend to drive you to success or out of business.  What differentiates you is your ability to network, the ability to grow your business and to stay true to the principles of what you are all about.  You got to have a passion for what you do and if you don’t have that passion you’re going to have a hard time riding this kind of economy out.”  He further stated “ Success requires creativity and thinking outside the box, forming new partnerships and new arrangements with other companies that help you get access to new business opportunities.  You have to be willing to do all these things in this kind of economy for success.”  

This upbeat message and enthusiasm was everywhere I traveled.  Participants of the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council “Marketplace of Opportunities Expo” held in Nashville echoed many of the same sentiments about networking.  I asked NMSDC

NMSDC President Joset B. Wright says, "The growth of Black owned companies is triple that of the national rate." Photo Courtesy: NSMDC

President Joset B. Wright if joining organizations like TSMDC and NMSDC still viable options in this economy?  Ms. Wright stated, “We have new corporations joining us every year understanding that they have an opportunity to connect with MBE’s.  These events offer those corporations that are looking for MBE’s to be present and most of our corporations will not accept you if you are not certified by one of the NMSDC councils.  So, we think that this is the first step to beginning a long-term relationship with potential customers.”   Derrick Dowell, Associate Director for TSMDC says the changing demographics of the country make events like theirs a viable resource option for businesses, adding, “ More and more minority businesses are coming into fruition so it is more imperative for councils like TSMDC to be the connecting link via educational and training opportunities.  Help them improve and grow to capacity and to make those corporate connections necessary to get a seat at the table.”

Descendants of the legendary entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker were proud to display their products at the Lexington MBE. Family members are (from left to right) Patricia Burnett, Joyce Randolph and Vivian Randolph. Photo Courtesy: BeeNetwork News

Women owned businesses are also more active at these networking events. A diverse group of businesses participate, ranging from marketing, hair care, personnel firms, construction, catering and more.

Sharalee Scanlon, Owner of  “AD-SUCCESS” a Lexington, Kentucky based company with twenty-eight years of experience specializing in new media and destination marketing says,“ What other way can you gain access to decision makers, which ultimately helps grow your business over time?”   Her co-worker Debbie Crowdus, further stated the company deals so much on a state level with tourism and travel.  Adding, “It’s very inspirational to see small businesses, minority businesses and women owned businesses that are flourishing, that are using the tools available, networking and connecting.  It lets us see how we can also grow our business as well.”

Other companies taking part in the various MBE events include: Vivian Randolph, President and descendant of Mme C.J. Walker’s Original Products; Christy Jarboe and Vetta Johnson of TKT and Associates; Brenda Odom of U-Kno Catering; Amber McGuire of the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA); Dannie Terre Moore of Be The Match – National Marrow Donor Program; Henry Snorton of MVP Consulting; Dr. Carolyn Dunn of the Kentucky Congress of Cosmetologists; Pamela and Lamel Luter of Delectable Meals and More.

Verna’ Goatley, Manager, for the Louisville Metro Government Economic Development Department says the current economic climate requires businesses to be more proactive in forming collaborations.  She added, “I think it’s important for eligible MBE’s and WBE’s to use these events to make the proper connections in order for their businesses to remain viable and competitive.”

Stephanie Pryor, Supplier Diversity Manager for LGE –KU Energy says their 1.2 million customers make it important to seek out diverse companies that can do the work, adding, “Networking and being able to connect with counterparts from other utility companies helps us see what potential suppliers are out here to bring to Kentucky.”

Maria Teresa “Tera” Vazquez, President and CEO for Guy Brown, Inc., says her company has been able to hang in there during these tough times and has been a part of TMSDC

since 1999,  primarily because of the organization’s advocacy.  She adds, “As long as you bring value to the potential customer, there is always room to have an opportunity

Tera Vazquez, CEO of Guy Brown, Inc. says, "We have been able to hang in there during tough times." Photo Courtesy: Nashville Post . Com

to land that business.  So yes, the economy has slowed our growth, but it’s really not an impediment to our continued progress.  Our focus, as a small company, is to grow a top line business while at the same time working on an infrastructure that can allow us expansion according to our growth plan.”

A number of first and second year attendees at the MBE events are making solid business collaborations and acquiring contracts.  Corey Jones, owner of Diamond Restoration, an exterior cleaning company, and Joel Lyons, President and CEO of Lyons Cleaners, exemplify the new young breed of entrepreneurs that have established themselves.  I asked both of them how they were able to be successful in an economy that appears to be stalled?   Lyons stated, “A lot of times people join these organizations and want them to do the work for them.  What I found was just the opposite, that if you’re involved with the organization and putting in work, participating in seminars, tradeshows, networking, taking advantage of the educational opportunities and building relationships, then you can make a difference and grow your business.”

Corey Jones further added, “I knew that I would be able to come out and meet different organizations and meet some of the people that are spearheading projects.  The relationships my company has built so far has exceeded my expectations.  The benefit has been wonderful.  Our motto is “if you don’t hustle, you don’t eat!”  In this economy, we must outwork everybody.  We find ways to help make our customers successful.”  Both men cite the encouragement and business examples of TMSDC President Cheri Henderson and Tera Vazquez President and CEO of Guy Brown, Inc., as key contributors to their success.

Ms. Tatum Credits Sponsors with helping the Lexington Bluegrass MBE grow. Photo Courtesy: Lexington Bluegrass MBE..

One thing all the networking events have in common is great organization and oversight.  Pat Tatum, of the Lexington Bluegrass MBE, and Jervale Watson, Manager of the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council, make sure the participants at their events enjoy an environment that’s professional, personable and efficient.  Ms. Tatum adds, “Sponsors like Fifth Third Bank, the University of Kentucky, Toyota, PNC and others are the key to our success.”  Ms. Watson agrees with the sponsorship assessment.  She further said, “The TMSDC event is still small enough to give participants great visibility and ample time to conduct valuable face-to-face conversations with key decision makers.”  

So, from all accounts it seems that joining network organizations, building collaborations, acquiring knowledge and staying persistent are key factors for entrepreneurs forging ahead during good or bad economic times.  For more information on the organizations mentioned in this article, visit the links below.

Other Links of Interest:

http://www.nmsdc.org/nmsdc/app/template/contentMgmt%2CContentPage.vm/contentid/1293

http://www.tmsdc.net/

http://www.lexingtonmbe.com

http://www.orsolutions.com/

http://www.orchemcorp.com/Company-Profile/Management-Team/Oscar-Robertson-65.html

http://www.newschannel5.com/story/5420351/vicki-yates-anchorreporter

http://www.ventureneer.com/use-and-value-resources-small-business-owners-and-nonprofit-leaders

http://www.score.org/ http://www.messer.com/

http://www.guybrown.com/

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