By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
PITTSFIELD — The vibrant and growing sector of Black-owned businesses in the Berkshires has an advocate dedicated to pushing for its success.
The Berkshire Black Economic Council was formed in 2021 to support and foster Black entrepreneurs and help them build their business and visibility in the community.
“The Berkshire Black Economic Council is an opportunity for Berkshire County residents who are African-American to obtain and get support that is needed in the business world,” said Shirley Ann Session Edgerton, a member of the council’s steering committee.
Advocacy is particularly critical at this time, as businesses are rebounding from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that started in March 2020.
“If you review statistics around who receives funds and grants in response to the impact of COVID, the numbers are really low for Black businesses,” Edgerton said. “By organizing a Black Economic Council, it provides a united front, it ensures that Black businesses have information — they have an organization that is committed to advocacy on their behalf. And it’s a good opportunity in terms of learning from each other.”
Obtaining grant assistance, including recent infusions of money into the economy such as federally supported Paycheck Protection Program loans, or PPP — many of which don’t have to be paid back — issued by the U.S. Small Business Administration, has been challenging for some minority-owned businesses, Edgerton said.
“I think some of it is lack of awareness — I was surprised talking to people who didn’t know that you didn’t have to take out loans, but there are other ways of getting funds, like grants,” Edgerton said. “Whether loans or grants, a lot of it is lack of information and for some people, because they have small organizations, they don’t have the capacity to write grants or have the expertise in terms of applying for loans so that often puts them in a position that they often don’t have the resources to make it work.”
The Berkshire Black Economic Council offers businesses guidance in applying for financial assistance.
“We guide them and if more intense help is needed, there are some who have expertise and knowledge,” Edgerton said. “We also have knowledgeable organizations in the community that can support them.”
In addition to providing support to current entrepreneurs, the organization also helps connect established business owners with aspiring future entrepreneurs.
“We connect them to give back to the community as well, to be a resource and provide opportunities where they can share their talents and skills with others who want to be entrepreneurs who have an interest and want to learn more about business,” Edgerton said. “It’s also an opportunity for them to be representatives in the community in teaching younger folks.”
Steering committee member A.J. Enchill said the council focuses on African-American businesses with the aim of broadening their opportunities. He, too, cited challenges in obtaining grant funds and support businesses were eligible for in the wake of the pandemic.
“A large part of what we are trying to do is establish and meet the needs of Black businesses,” Enchill said. “For example, during COVID-19 we learned that of our entrepreneurs, over 68% of them did not receive any COVID-19 relief at all.”
The Berkshire Black Economic Council looks to educate its members and the broader community, as well as helping them to overcome long ingrained obstacles.
“While there is excitement and energy towards serving the Black community and advocating for the BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) community at large, it still isn’t making its way to the Black entrepreneurs and the question for us is, how do we solve that and how do we address those barriers of entry?” Enchill said.
Barriers can include something as simple as a Black business owner who runs their business on their personal bank and does not have a business account, creating a roadblock to obtaining an SBA grant or loan.
Another barrier could be the size and scope of the business with regard to obtaining SBA assistance.
“If you are asking for $500,000 in sales and 10 employees, then that is not going to be criteria that some entrepreneurs are going to be able to meet,” Enchill said. “Those are the issues that we are trying to address and we are trying to break down those barriers through networking between Black businesses and the greater Berkshire business community at large.”
In September, the council tried to bridge some of those relationship gaps with a networking event designed to connect Black business owners with the broader local community.
“This past September we were able to host a networking event and we were successful in getting tables for the entrepreneurs so they could get set up and really market themselves and tell their stories to the Berkshire business community,” Enchill said. “The beauty of that event was that A, it was the first time we were able to get almost 20 Black businesses under one roof and B, they were able to be celebrated and introduced to the wider Berkshire business community.”
That networking event drew the mayors of both Pittsfield and North Adams, along with public officials and businesses such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Williams College, Tanglewood and others, he said.
“Being able to shake a hand and be face to face, it’s really a great way to introduce people to one another and break what has more or less been economic segregation in the region,” Enchill said.
The event provided an opportunity for Black-owned businesses to forge relationships with white-led organizations, Enchill said.
“That is what has been so exciting about putting this organization together — what is has been able to quickly amplify because right now, there is still a lot of distrust between the Black business community and the public sector,” Enchill said. “Since the murder of George Floyd, there has been energy and excitement towards diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism, but you can only imagine that as a Black entrepreneur, you are somewhat skeptical as to where this is all coming from and I think folks are still not getting the resources they need, but meanwhile there is this talk of getting funds and resources in the communities that have been historically underserved.”
George Floyd was an African-American man from Minnesota who was killed at the hands of police and whose death sparked a nationwide push in support of the Black Lives Matter cause.
In addition to providing support and networking assistance to help African-American entrepreneurs grow their business, the council is also aiming to provide information about becoming a certified Minority Business Enterprise, or MBE.
“One of our hopes is to have MBE certification education,” Enchill said. “By working with the Greater New England chapter of Supplier Diversity, we are hoping to be able to teach Black businesses about the benefits of having MBE certification. Just because you are a Black business doesn’t mean you are certified as a minority business and as a minority business, there are different supplier diversity programs that can be beneficial to the entrepreneur.”
Enchill pointed to a supplier diversity program that a national pharmaceutical retailer has that encourages minority-owned beauty suppliers, such as hair and makeup companies, to get their products on the store’s shelves.
“That is a missed opportunity if someone doesn’t have the MBE certification,” Enchill said. “If they are able to have their products on the shelves, they will be able to get their product out there and increase visibility, but also for revenue.”
The types of businesses that have joined the council are diverse, everything from fitness trainers to landscapers, realtors, beauty supply, sports retail and more.
Enchill hopes the council will help business owners build relationships with others in the Berkshire economy.
“Right now, what businesses need is access to patronage, but they also need access to listeners — folks who really want to work alongside of Black businesses, to think creatively about their solutions and solutions that would be beneficial to them in terms of grants and technical assistance,” Enchill said. “I think the typical models that we have are great, whether it’s marketing and advertising dollars, whether it’s website development, but I think there are ways we can be creative and think outside the box and find other solutions to socioeconomic barriers.”
The council has also set up a subdivision, a Black Arts Council, that will look to build the creative economy, tapping into the economic potential of African-American performers, artists and customers.
“We are hiring ambassadors who are locally trusted residents from the community,” Enchill said. “They will go out to the Berkshire nonprofits and cultural institutions, and also youth-based organizations, to start interviewing Black residents and visitors on their experiences and what they would wish the Berkshires would have to make them feel more included in the economy, especially the arts and cultural sector.”
Arts ambassadors are asking interviewees about the types of performances and exhibits they would be interested in attending, safety measures they would like to see implemented, and how to create a general sense of belonging.
“We are really doing a temperature check and working through these ambassadors who know where Black residents are,” Enchill said. “We would like to increase our numbers of survey respondents and in doing so, begin to inform the curriculum for the Berkshire culturals on how to be a better Berkshire nonprofit to reach a broader community. Ultimately, they will be able to increase their patronage and have a more diverse workforce.”
Expanding and supporting Black involvement in the Berkshires’ creative economy will help the broader cultural and business community as the arts can contribute to economic development by bringing people to the area who stay in hotels, purchase gasoline, eat in local restaurants, shop and more.
And when the general economy benefits from the work of both the economic council and the arts council, everyone benefits, Edgerton said.
“The council benefits all — it’s a plus for the community as well as the membership of Black businesses as well as white corporations,” she said. “I think it is definitely a positive and can have a major impact on our county.”
Disclosure: Warren Dews Jr., publisher and vice president of Capital Region Independent Media, is a member of the Berkshire Black Economic Council’s steering committee.