Connections make difference for minority firms


There remains a dearth of minority-owned-businesses in West Michigan.

Jim Roberts is one of the few minority business owners in the region: Jim Roberts Enterprises is a financial services firm. He said becoming a certified minority business enterprise was an important step — one other minority business owners should consider.

“I got certified in 2004 for Jim Roberts Enterprises,” Roberts said. “I think it is very helpful. You’ve got a lot of companies out there that, if they have federal contracts, they have requirements or goals for minority, women, (service) disabled American veterans and LGBT (owned) businesses.”

Roberts is active in helping minority business owners connect with each other and with companies they’d like to work with.

He is part of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Minority CEO Roundtable, sits on the board of directors for the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council for the state of Michigan, and is a member of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“I’ve also developed a network. We have more than 250 individuals and companies that are on this network that I send an email out to every day that talks about business opportunities, training or employment opportunities,” he said.

The network stretches across the state and continues to grow.

Roberts said companies can benefit from seeking out minority-owned businesses and he warns that the ones that don’t will likely begin missing out on opportunities in the future as the makeup of the population changes.

“The demographics of the country are changing and if you don’t do it now it’s going to hurt your top line revenue in the future,” he said.

Roberts recently partnered with Centennial Securities on a joint venture: Centennial Securities Advisory Services LLC. Roberts has been an independent financial advisor through Centennial Securities since 2006.

He said Centennial Securities Advisory Services is also certified as an MBE.

“Eventually, if we were to bring in all the Centennial Securities assets, we would have the largest certified MBE advisory firm not only in Michigan but probably in the Great Lakes region, and it could potentially be one of the top 50 in the country,” he said.

Roberts said starting a business is particularly hard for people of color because of a lack of funding.

“One of the biggest things I think is a disadvantage for minorities — the whole range of communities — is its generational wealth,” he said. “If I’m Caucasian and I want to go out and start a business, chances are my mom and dad or uncle and aunt can co-sign a loan for me or do something to help me secure that initial startup cash.

“Because of the lack of generational wealth — that is a big problem. You tend to find people of color have less home ownership, equity, etc.”

It’s not all grim news, however. Roberts said statistics are moving in favor of minority entrepreneurs.

“The startups of minority-owned businesses outpace those of majority-owned businesses by six to one right now,” he said. “It is starting to change.”

He said that is where minority business owners can help and it’s important they do so.

“We need minority business owners to reach out to other minority business owners,” he said. “There are a lot of MBEs out there that get certified and think a company should work with them because they are certified. But when you turn around and say, ‘What does your spend look like?’ they go, ‘Oh, well, umm,’ and they don’t do business with other women- or minority-owned businesses.”

Roberts said minority business owners have to walk the walk.

“One of the things I do for my business — my business is small — is I’ve made a concentrated effort that 50 percent of my controllable spend will be with a diverse group, and for the last two to three years I’ve beaten that goal,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean I’m paying more; it just takes me a little longer maybe to find a business owner in that market segment,” he said. “We have to be minority business owners that deliver the same or better service at the same or better cost.”

Roberts emphasized it’s one thing to be part of an organization like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but it’s another to be an active member.

“I tend to see people — this is corporations as well as smaller businesses — where they will join something like the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber, and they will go to one or two events and don’t get an immediate big win off of it, and so they get discouraged and don’t go back. They will keep the membership going, but they don’t participate.

“You are only going to get out of it what you put into it. That is the same thing for MBEs — people who join and aren’t active.”

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