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Minority-Owned Businesses In Iowa Teaming Up To Survive Pandemic Economy

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The West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce hosted its first Black and Brown Business Summit last month. The organizers hope to make this an annual event where minority-owned businesses can network and learn from others.

Ricky Mathai is a tax professional who came to the United States from Kenya and now owns his own company that helps immigrant-owned businesses with their finances.

He sat waiting for his next networking session at West Des Moines’ first-ever Black and Brown Business Summit. He attended the event with 454 other people.

He wants to work with Latino business owners to advance his own firm, where he emphasizes empowering and educating other small business owners from racial and ethnic minority populations.

“There's no need…there's no need to be nativist. There's no need to just have corners and cliques and people groups. Let's break down the walls, it’s the 21st century. That's what our fight is today," Mathai said.

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Terrence Thames texts his team at the Black and Brown Business Summit. He said he initially had the idea for the summit a few years ago. "Fast forward to everything that's happening now. After the social unrest, as they say, that was happening last year, and the pandemic and really the attention on systematic racism all around us," Thames said. That's what provided the big push for the summit to be held in 2021.

Terrence Thames helped plan the summit for people like Mathai. He’s on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the Chamber of Commerce in West Des Moines.

“You have a lot of businesses who are here this week, who are saying, 'Hey, we see this this problem, we want to be a part of the solution,'” Thames explained.

He’s a Black business owner himself. And when he explained what the “problem” was, he shook his head.

“Oh, girl, we don’t got the time for that. There's a lot of things that have not been happening in our ecosystem, that and some of that some of that stems from is based off of different things," Thames said. "We don't have strong legislation in our state that support minority-owned businesses.”

We don't have strong legislation in our state that support minority-owned businesses.
Terrence Thames, business owner

Thames said he thinks part of this is due to a lack of representation in state government. There are just six Black lawmakers in the Iowa legislature and just last November, the first Latino was elected into the House.

Thames said since the majority of state lawmakers are white, “They're not people who are making decisions with the minority community top of mind, and they're sometimes working in a space where they haven't expanded their circles to include diversity of thought, whether it's for women, or in this case for minority men and women, you know. And so it has perpetual effects down the line.”

Thames spoke from personal experience not only as a business owner, but also as a Black entrepreneur.

His firm, Cocoa Creative, was one of the rare agencies to bounce back quickly from the pandemic. But Thames said that's not because the state invested in him as a business owner, it's because of his background.

He grew up in Southside Chicago and his 18-year-old cousin at the University of Iowa took him in so he could "have a better life."

"My business is growing. We're learning along the way. But the consistency for my life is: it's been a village all the way around me, always around me, to help me grow. And it's a really powerful thing, you know, Black and brown people," Thames said.

To make up for this lack of support they see from state government, Black and brown-owned businesses are starting to team up to ensure each others’ success.

They are teaching each other how to network, build relationships with financial institutions, and even what questions to ask to make sure their businesses don’t fall between the cracks.

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Amner Martinez smiles at the Black and Brown Business Summit. He produces and hosts a podcast network that highlights diverse voices, Amplified. "I think the platform, Amplified, it's definitely fun but I would say it's more important work for me. It's a work of learning and self discovery that the hosts are sharing in hopes that it can get to like-minded people," Martinez said.

“I think the whole thing of number is power, or there's power in numbers," Amner Martinez said.

He participated in the pitch competition at the summit. He didn't place, but he congratulates the winners, including Mathai who won third place.

He owns a staffing agency, recruiting, headhunting firm and he also hosts a podcast to highlight diverse voices. In all, he wants to help build a "multicultural bridge" for employers in Iowa.

He realized before now, he actually hadn’t worked with many Black people at his staffing agency as vendors, but he works with many Latinos.

“I think that if instead of kind of separating each other and kind of combining our strength and I think that it's always good," Martinez said.

He said it’s just about time that minority-owned businesses in Iowa really start to put a conscious effort into working together. And for other institutions to "put true financial support" behind them.

“There's something embedded, that white people were always in the upper hand, were always getting the good end of the deal. And then the African American people and people of color were getting the short end of the deal," Martinez said.

According to a Federal Reserve Banks survey, minority-owned businesses are more unlikely to survive pandemic conditions without government assistance.

Among the businesses who reported race and ethnicity to the Small Business Administration, non-Hispanic, white business owners received the highest percentage of forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.

And Katherine Harrington, the president and CEO of the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, recognizes that disparity.

“They don't have the same chances as I do as a white person...Because of their skin color, it's ridiculous," Harrington said.

Her eyes began to water as she explained why she supported Thames and other organizers for a Black and brown business summit.

"The answer is simply George Floyd. He woke us up," Harrington said. "He woke up America. He woke up the world to racial injustice, and every facet, where it is and where it hides. That's why we're here."

She added it’s time for some white-owned businesses to step back.

“Now is the time to take advantage of this opportunity, because all eyes are on black and brown businesses, the black and brown people, and how can we all help? And so we're trying to do our part," she explained.

Many Black and brown business owners say they feel more confident as the pandemic subsides because they have more partners to turn to within the community.

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Angela Jackson, the chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, speaks with an attendee at the Black and Brown Business Summit. She helped plan the event. "We have a theme which is learn, grow, thrive. Our plan was to elevate Black businesses, brown businesses, give them amplification, give them a profile, give them the opportunity to really be showcased," she explained.

The business summit Thames helped organize brought in a total of $55,500 to the minority-owned business community and more than 13,000 people viewed the website. And as far as both the attendees and the organizers know, this is just the beginning.

Corrected: March 18, 2022 at 2:30 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story had the incorrect percentage listed. We regret the error.