With all of this chatter about lessening racial disparities that goes on in Madison, Eric Upchurch, the new executive director for the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, knows that economic empowerment will ultimately play a key role.
“Besides leading by example with economic empowerment, the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce can also help make inroads and impact on the bottom line of economic disparities,” Upchurch says. “The short versions is this: Healthy businesses lead to healthy pockets. Healthy pockets, we hope, contributes to healthier homes and healthier communities. Healthy communities lead to a healthy city.”
The Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, originally established in 2004 as the African American Black Business Association (AABBA), is a volunteer-based organization that works to promote, advocate, empower, lead, empower and build community support for black-owned businesses. It is a hub for black business development and economic empowerment for the black community, connecting aspirations and resources, strengthening black business in Madison and, as their slogan says, “making smart Black businesses smarter.”
Black ownership and black economic power will ultimately put black people in the position to self-determine their futures. “We can certainly do that same advocacy, but it’s a different conversation when you can demonstrate what it means to be equitable and demonstrate what it means to be culturally competent and look out for your own and provide for a diverse community,” Upchurch says.
“We don’t have a lot of respect in Madison right now,” Upchurch adds. “Right now, they don’t seek us out. What I’ve heard is that, ‘Well, the black community is just not developed. They just don’t have the talent to put black people in leadership.’ But we actually do. A little bit of networking and talking to the right people and you can find them.”
Upchurch says that’s why the Chamber created the Madison Black Business Directory and have distributed it on a mass basis to at least 5,000 people while updating it regularly. Throughout the year, the Chamber also encourages patronage of black businesses through word-of-mouth, quarterly newsletters, publicizing special events at black business sites, advertising and speaking engagements.
“People just don’t know how many black businesses are here,” Upchurch says. “And even if they did know that there were black businesses here, how do we contact them? What do they do?”
By day, Upchurch is the director of development at YWCA Madison and he is also one of the leaders of Young, Gifted and Black (YGB). He is also the executive director of ESUCEO Inc., a strategic development company helping businesses and individuals reach their goals through business planning, business development, fundraising, investments and consultation using a team comprised of an advisory board, great minds and service providers.
“I think the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce is making strides in raising awareness, but real respect will come from an equal playing field and we can’t keep coming at it from a standpoint of asking for provisions and asking for help and asking for support,” Upchurch says. “We have to be able to support ourselves and lead by example. We can’t expect a community that’s 6 percent black to know how to engage black people and know how to be healthy when it comes to diverse communities. But what we can do is show someone by doing it ourselves. That’s a big part of our goal.”
The mission of the Black Chamber is to empower and engage Madison’s black community in the region’s economic development by supporting the establishment and growth of black businesses and black leadership, the employment of black people and to promote the power and impact of black commerce.
“We too often have to tug the coattails of those who are in decision-making roles because we aren’t in those decision-making roles ourselves … we don’t have that economic pull or stability. We don’t have the time to run for office or ability to sit in some of those seats,” Upchurch adds. “We have to go and ask an organization to make sure that they are being equitable and that they are going through the steps to make sure they are considering their communities of color and their black population.”
Upchurch says that we don’t have many examples of black entrepreneurial success here in Madison, but it’s not for a lack of desire. “I don’t see a lot of lack of aspiration for entrepreneurship among young people of color in this city. What I do see is a disconnect in process and possibility,” Upchurch says. “What I’ve seen and experienced is that kids dream big … but there isn’t a roadmap and support to connect them to that dream. So, what we’re doing at the Chamber is developing a Youth Strategic Development class and we’re partnering with Breaking Barriers with some folks from UW and UW-Extension and Urban League to teach kids how to develop strategic plans whether it’s for their education, for their business, or for a job and to present those strategic plans to folks who can provide resources, consultation and guidance in making that thing happen.”
Another part of what the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce does is develops collaborative relationships that result in reaching organizations with rich resources and like-minded goals. Since 2004, they have collaborated with more than 25 Wisconsin businesses and agencies such as CDBG with the city of Madison, BMO Harris Bank, WARF, Summit Credit Union, Madison College, UW Small Business Administration and Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative (WBIC). As a result, they have been able to offer resources and training opportunities for black businesses to reach its objective of raising the quality and quantity of black businesses here in Madison.
“The biggest piece is the Black Economic Empowerment Fund,” Upchurch says. “What we’re building there is a pool of funds that makes low-barrier grants, loans and investments into black businesses. We want to be able to remove some of those barriers for black businesses to their own entrepreneurial successes.”
Other Black Chamber programs include annual events such as the Black Business Expo, a Resource Fair, a Business Boot Camp and a Holiday Mixer. The Madison Black Chambers of Commerce recently hosted a Business Resource Workshop in partnership with the Small Business Administration at the Villager Mall that included participation from U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. The purpose of the workshop was to connect black entrepreneurs to the resources they need to be successful.
“We had WWBIC, SCORE, CORE, the Latino Chamber of Commerce at the event,” Upchurch says. “We had Senator Tammy Baldwin there. That was great. We plan on doing that a few more times with more of a focus on giving businesses more time with those resources to really iron out the details of what they need to have done.”
Upchurch says that they are exchanging memberships with the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and the Latino Chamber of Commerce as a way to show mutual support of the organizations. Currently, there are over 300 black-led organizations in the Madison Black Chamber. “Our industries [in the Madison Black Chamber] are diverse and we are diverse people. We’re a world of cultures within a culture,” Upchurch says. “We need technology and we need to encourage the use of technology. And we need brick-and-mortar ownership. That’s what will give us say-so in neighborhood meetings and planning meetings.
“We’re getting ready to do a business needs survey that I’m pretty excited about. We’ll use that to do one-on-one consultation with each business and determine what it is that their needs are and where they might have some shortcomings where they can be healthier,” Upchurch adds. “Then, we will connect these businesses to some of the resource partners that came to our workshop and others that we are engaging. We want to get these businesses to the next level.”
“We will do a reassessment afterwards to see how we are improving the state of black businesses in Madison,” he adds.
What it comes down to in the end, Upchurch says, is that black people must support black-owned businesses.
“We’ve noticed that black restaurants – and black businesses in Madison, in general — don’t survive long. Some of that is process and practice and resources, which we can work on,” Upchurch says. “A big part of it, as a community, is that we don’t really patronize our own businesses much. One of the biggest initiatives that we are working on is how can we encourage the patronage of black businesses. We’ve got to support ourselves, but we also live in a community that benefits from black dollars all the time. We need to remember to give back to our black businesses.”
What are the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce’s goals moving forward?
“Of course, we have the cliché – ‘we want to see a healthier black Madison economic community’ – but what we really want to do is to establish a sustainable system of black economic empowerment and development, so that means understanding the needs of our black businesses and bridging the gap between those needs and the resources,” Upchurch says.
“We want to work with as many organizations as we can that can be an ally to the development and empowerment of black businesses,” Upchurch adds. “But we also want to build up our own internal programming and processes to provide consistency and stability for the Chamber. We really want to build the confidence in the black community in the Black Chamber. We want to be the hands-down, go-to resource in this city. Our ultimate goal is a healthy black economic community.”