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We Need to Acknowledge and Address Systemic Barriers

By Elizabeth Cromwell, President & CEO of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce

Published in the Daily Progress special publication Celebrating MLK Day, January 17, 2021

Major events of 2020 brought the issue of racial inequity into stark relief for businesses and people of privilege who may not fully recognize its causes and consequences. By acknowledging the economic injustice and barriers to success that continue to negatively impact our minority business community, and by seeking specific changes to improve equitable outcomes, we have an opportunity to fully realize the Chamber's vision for a thriving regional economy.

For example, we want to play a larger role in connecting the dots between minority-owned businesses and consumers and organizations that specifically seek them. While many minority-owned businesses gain customers by word-of-mouth, the Chamber wants to assist in providing referrals for consumers and businesses that are not yet aware of each other.

Together, we should also seek ways to improve access to capital for minority-owned businesses. Multiple studies confirm that black-owned start-ups start smaller and stay smaller over the entire first eight years of their existence. Black start-ups face more difficulty in raising external capital, especially external debt, which constrains growth. There are a variety of reasons identified for this disparity, and it is our shared responsibility to address this issue in order to diversify and strengthen our regional economy, and in doing so grow our tax base.

As a Chamber, we are committed to building a broader network through an increasingly diverse Board of Directors and membership. Our board is launching an internal effort to determine how best to advocate, convene and engage to benefit underrepresented minorities in the Charlottesville business community and to help our business community grow as holistically and equitably as possible. This effort is not only the right thing to do, but also makes good business sense by building a more resilient economy.

There's no question that our shared success depends on the recognition that each one of us – and the businesses we found, grow, and support – uniquely contributes to making a fuller, richer community, and if we are to reach our full potential we need to acknowledge and address systemic barriers faced by too many in our business community.

In the words of attorney, businessman and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan:

"You are where you are today because you stand on somebody's shoulders. And wherever you are heading, you cannot get there by yourself. If you stand on the shoulders of others, you have a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others may stand on your shoulders. It's the quid pro quo of life. We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give."

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