Robert Blair

Robert Blair

 

Williamson County’s new Black Business Coalition is funding a comprehensive data-mining effort and engaging local Black-owned businesses to improve Williamson Inc.’s attentiveness to their economic needs.

Co-chaired by Robert Blair, Tara Blue, Jeffrey McGruder II and Jemond Daughtry, the Black Business Coalition is currently focused on fulfilling its founding objective to survey the county’s Black residents and business owners about their experiences in working and trying to start businesses in the area.

Williamson Inc. President and CEO Matt Largen originally reached out to co-chairs in 2020 during the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Largen had an interest in determining what long-lasting outreach could be organized for the Black community. The coalition was founded as a result, and survey efforts began last summer.

The coalition’s next step is acting on survey data, which McGruder anticipates will focus on educating Black entrepreneurs about diversity opportunities in the county and the small-business-related initiatives. Many local big corporations are involved so that Black businesses can be consistently solicited for opportunities that pertain to the services and products they provide.

To complete the comprehensive survey to identify business owners’ and workers’ needs, the coalition began fundraising approximately $35,000 from the Downtown Business Bureau of Williamson County, the county mayor’s office and several banks including Pinnacle Financial Partners.

“I think the [primary] need is to be identified and noticed,” McGruder told Homepage.

He added that local Black entrepreneurs “want a place where they can network and build and learn how to get opportunities. Some of it is giving them access to capital and the resources to get corporate relationships. The chamber has not done a good job at that.”

The coalition saw to it that Black businesses have their own directory on Williamson Inc.’s website, and it is currently developing a separate website unto itself. While pursuing their fundraising goal to finish the survey, the coalition opted to organize virtual networking mixers designed to build a Black, entrepreneurial network.

The coalition hosted the first of as many as four virtual, networking mixers last week on April 20. It was primarily focused on simply gathering Black-owned businesses and encouraging them to join the county chamber of commerce; however, many such businesses cannot reap the benefits of chamber membership because membership inherently presents a financial hardship for them.

“That was the whole purpose of the Black Business Coalition being started,” according to coalition Co-chair Tara Blue, “because there was not enough being done for the Black businesses, and we knew they existed, but they were kind of hidden or they were just not in the forefront like they needed to be.”

Blue said most of these businesses have very few employees, and their profit margins do not allow for long-term remittance of membership dues to the chamber. Chamber services, however, would be worthwhile for many of them if business owners had access to capital they may not have previously known was available to them.

The coalition has already determined that several Black-owned businesses are in need of assistance finding capital for expanding and refining their operations. The next mixer will feature guest speakers, ideally from banks, who can elucidate how business owners can apply for small-business loans and educate them on how best to use the capital.

Blue highlighted support for local businesses in Williamson County’s Black community as a means to compensate for the small number of Black-owned businesses in the county that are meeting the culturally specific needs.

“We just don’t have enough Black-owned storefront businesses,” Blue said. “That causes a lot of us to have to travel to Nashville and other areas to get the services we need because we all have different needs — whether that’s your hair products, your skin products, your food.”

Last week’s mixer brought some 30 Black business owners in Williamson County in contact with Largen, Economic Development Manager Anna Lisa Roberts and representatives of Visit Franklin, a destination marketing organization and subsidiary of the Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Blue said some business owners in the Black community did not realize how worthwhile chamber membership could be, which is why Largen “felt the need to step in to make sure he was doing enough to help them.”

Dates for the mixers to come are to be determined, but the initial plan has been to hold them almost every other month — April, June, August and perhaps November. Other mixers planned so far are intended to be focused on employment and marketing. In the fall mixers, they hope to meet business owners in person.

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