By Pamela J. Oakes
Among my career highlights is a 3-year stint in post-apartheid South Africa consulting with top corporations in the areas of Diversity, Employment Equity, Affirmative Action and Gender Equity. So, when I was recently invited to address a group of Black businesswomen representing the African diaspora, I jumped at the opportunity. One of the questions posed to me was, “…how can we do better in forging, creating, and sustaining our own pathways towards sustained growth?…” Ok, that’s a huge question, but one thing we can do, is to value more highly, black businesses.
It should be obvious to all, that a history of inundating society with negative imagery and stereotypes about Black people, has given rise to a bias – whether explicit or implicit – that Black people are ‘less than,’ ‘not good as’, or ‘not as competent as’ their non-Black counterparts. These biases breed suspicion and when those suspicions go unchecked, they cause people to make irrational judgement calls (such as calling the police on Black people), even when those Black people are engaged in mundane everyday activities like driving a car or walking down the street.
Unfortunately, what Black people need to also realize is that those exact same biases that skew the perceptions of how others view Black people, ALSO skew the perceptions of how Black people view themselves! As members of the same society, none of us escape the indoctrination. That is the insidious side of racism – the fact that it breeds hate and suspicion amongst the haters AND the hated.
Value is subjective. When we shop Nordstrom’s we never think to question or re-negotiate the price for goods or services. We accept the value THEY set as being true and accurate and we pay accordingly. Yet, when given an opportunity to support a Black business, our programmed biases are triggered. Instead of accepting the stated value of goods & services, the tendency is to question, doubt and be suspicious.
As Black entrepreneurs, we are even prone to devaluing our OWN time and services. We work for menial wages having been indoctrinated that Black time/labor/effort is not worth the same value as White time/labor/effort. That implicit bias has us putting an unrealistically low price-tag on our services, that inevitably keeps our businesses small and does little to improve our own economics.
What can we do better? Here are some ideas:
• Get a business coach! – Black entrepreneurs have a lot of ground to make up just to be on an equal playing field with non-White counterparts. We need to find ways to ramp up and fast-track our learning curve, circumvent institutional bias, and leap-frog beyond the limitations of our own knowledge base and skillset and that is exactly what a business coach helps to do.
• Challenge your own implicit bias! – Due to a history of lack of resources and capital shortages, Black business owners are often more distrustful of the “powers that be” and less likely to participate in networks, team up to pursue contracts or enter into strategic partnerships with other businesses to access new markets. Curious about what implicit biases you may harbor? The Implicit Association Test https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html has been around for years and can be very revealing.
• Support other Black businesses! – Whenever possible seek out, partner with, and support Black entrepreneurs, vendors, consultants, contractors, etc. and accept the value placed on their goods/services. If we want others to value and pay top dollar for our services, then we must be willing show that same honor in return.
Can challenging our perceptions bring us closer to answering the question, “..how can we do better in forging, creating, and sustaining our own pathways towards sustained growth?…” Well, we certainly have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying to find out.
PAMELA J. OAKES, Managing Director of The Profitable Nonprofit, is a funding consultant helping small and emerging nonprofits achieve funding sustainability. Pamela previously worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a grant maker, Strategic Planning and Engagement, Pamela’s team worked to reform U.S. education with the goal of creating a more equitable system that promotes social mobility and economic development for low-income, underserved, student populations of color.