CINCINNATI -- It's been 20 years since entrepreneur Jim Clingman convinced a group of black business leaders to start the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African-American Chamber of Commerce.
After all these years -- and the election and re-election of the nation's first black president -- the organization remains as important as ever, said Eric Kearney, the chamber's president and CEO.
"I think it's important in different ways," said Kearney, one of the chamber's founding board members long before being hired to run the organization. "Now we're kind of fighting for some of our members to grow more, to get larger, for a greater piece of the pie and to recognize the stellar accomplishments of some of our members."
The chamber will mark the milestone with a sold-out 20th anniversary gala on May 20 at the Sharonville Convention Center. The black-tie event will recognize the past presidents of the chamber and induct seven people into its Business Hall of Fame.
Clingman, the chamber's founding president, said the organization's biggest challenge is continuing to attract the involvement of businesses of all kinds.
"Business owners should be members, and I also think the chamber should always make sure that it's relevant and meaningful to the members by bringing in new, creative ways to help the businesses grow," he said.
WCPO sat down with Kearney in the weeks leading up to the event to talk about the chamber, how it has changed and what is next for the organization. Excerpts of that interview follow.
Q: How has the chamber changed over the past 20 years?
A: I was one of the original board members so I was involved with the organization. I've only been president for a year. Things have changed a lot. When we first started, we didn't really have a home. We were in a church basement. Now we've got this location, which used to be a Huntington Bank branch. The organization has programming now.
We've seen growth of African-American-owned businesses in terms of not only what they do but their size. We've had a professional community in Cincinnati for a while -- doctors and lawyers. But people have branched out to high-tech firms, firms that sell office furniture and do more business-to-business stuff, not always business to consumer. So that's really been exciting to see. I think that that really bodes well for the future of Cincinnati.
Q: Is the mission the same, but you have different ways to achieve it?
A: The organization is still the same in terms of its mission: Helping its members, being the voice for black business in the Greater Cincinnati area and being an advocate for black businesses. So I don't think those core values and those core parts of the mission will change.
I think the way that we go about it is a little bit different. Advocacy now is a lot different than how it was then. The way you go about it is different.
And what our members demand or seek from our organization is much different. So all of that has changed and evolved, and it's really been kind of exciting.
The following business people will be inducted into the African-American chamber's Hall of Fame on May 20:
• Howard Bond
• Steve Hightower
• Cookie and Duane Hudson
• Devan Johnson
• Dr. Chester Pryor
• Dr. Janet Reid
Q: Why is it important to have an African-American chamber?
A: The issues that an African-American-owned business faces are different than, let's say, a woman-owned business or a white male-owned business. There are certain government programs that are tailored to African-American business owners. The state of Ohio has a set-aside program. We host a minority business program here.
There are challenges related to capitalization, access to capital and loans because of the historic discrimination that's gone on. Those challenges create a reason for the African-American chamber to exist that don't necessarily apply to other types of businesses.
Some of our members are African-American-owned companies, and some are not. We're open to anyone joining. If you're a member, you can come to the programs for free. If you're not a member, then you have to pay a small charge.
Q: Your new programs include the Sudduth Society. What are some others? Why are they important?
A: The Sudduth Society is an accelerator that moves a company from $250,000 per year to $500,000 in annual revenue. Getting that scale is really very important. The Minority Business and Assistance Center, which we've housed for six years now, is important because it allows people to get certified, it's a lot of free information and it helps with loans and helps with bonding.
Those programs are vital to the operation of the organization. But we've got a whole host of other programs that help people. Business Basics is just a topic each month that maybe you as a businessperson might want to know about. We have programs that help with marketing and help connect members with a much larger organization that needs help with procurements. Hopefully that way we generate some more business for our members.
Q: What are the biggest challenges that remain for black business owners?
A: Access to capital is one. When I say access to capital I mean equity and getting loans that fit the organization and help the organization grow. I'd say understanding kind of the new dynamics of marketing and how to get your business known and out there. We have some challenges with respect to learning how to get contracts.
We need to be more willing to work with one another or to work with a competitor, like maybe even thinking about merging or a joint venture.
And then we've got to embrace the changing landscape of business now. We've really got to be open and embrace the rapid change that's happening in business right now.
Q: What's ahead for the chamber?
I think the organization has to become more flexible, and we have to address the needs of our members, particularly new entrepreneurs who think and do things differently. We need a new location to meet those needs.
A lot of the young entrepreneurs today do not have office space. They either use a Starbucks or maybe their apartment or house or whatever as their workspace. We need more space for entrepreneurs where they can come and feel comfortable and share ideas.
If we could find a good location tomorrow, I think we'd have to raise some money. But we're in a good position to do that.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for nearly 20 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.