GRAND RAPIDS — With the presence of the minority population fast approaching a critical mass, Melvin Gravely believes that some philosophical changes are in order for minority business to achieve its full potential any time soon.
“We’ve been active for 40 years,” Gravely said. “For 40 years we’ve been planning and starting programs and trying to create opportunities. But the next 40 years will be different from the last 40 years. We have to understand that what we’ve been doing won’t help us move forward in the next 40 years.”
Gravely, founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking and author of “When Black and White Make Green: The Next Evolution of Business and Race,” was the keynote speaker and workshop facilitator for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2004 Minority Business Celebration last week at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Gravely said in the last 40 years, efforts to develop minority business were made because it was the right thing to do. Today that is not the case: Corporations and other institutions engaged with the minority business community because it makes fiscal sense. It is still the right thing to do but because of financial reasoning and good business sense rather than moral obligation.
“We have this opportunity like never before because everyone is starting to get it at the same time,” said Gravely, himself a business owner. “Major corporations get it. They want their names on this program because they know it’s good to do business with the minority community. They want to diversify employer base, diversify supplier base, because they know it’s good to work with the minority community.
“For the first time, everyone is starting to get it and get it for the right reasons.”
Sponsors of the event included Meijer Inc., Fifth Third Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Spectrum Health and Bank One, among others.
The minority population in this country is larger now than at any point in history and there are more minority businesses than ever before, as well.
Similar to a recognized need for a new arena, convention center or minor league baseball park, the minority community represents an opportunity for a new economic engine. Diversity will happen regardless, Gravely said. The question is how to make sure the new economy achieves its full potential.
“If I were to tell you that if you were to build a new arena, that it would become an economic engine for your region, first you would tell me it couldn’t be done,” he said. “Then you would put your 12 smartest people together in a room — doesn’t even have to be the 12 smartest, could be the 12 richest — and within six months they will have figured out a way to do it.
But talking about race makes people uneasy.”
Most often, the issue is avoided and worked around. But as Gravely points out, many times race does become an issue, whether intentional or not, and can cut short what could have become beneficial relationships. The solution, he said, is to keep on open line of communication.
Gravely used a conversation with a former neighbor as an example. The neighbor, an elderly white woman, had referred to him as “boy.” One day, he explained to her that calling a young black man “boy” could be considered offensive. The woman immediately apologized. She wasn’t a racist or insensitive, just ill-informed.
Minority business leaders today have more opportunities to pursue dialogues on racial or other issues, he said.
“There was a time when a minority business owner would get upset and go protest,” Gravely said. “Now they get upset and they call their buddy who they met on a committee they sit on together, who just happens to be an executive vice president of a major corporation. Then they sit down and have a dialogue about business.
“Minority businesses are more prepared, more able and more ready to be successful today,” he added. “It’s no longer about black or white; it’s about green.”
Gravely also emphasized that for minority businesses to take advantage of this interest, they must be able to provide a competitive value.
“A lot of people seem to think that it’s their unalienable right to have a successful business,” he said. “That just is not true. You have a right to try.”
Three local institutions were honored with the 2004 Minority Business Awards at the celebration.
Advocate of the year was law firm Varnum Riddering Schmidt and Howlett LLP. Hispanic newspaper Lazo Cultural was honored with the entrepreneurial success award.
Grand Valley State University was named corporation of the year.
“You know, Grand Valley wins a lot of awards,” said Tim Schad, GVSU vice president of finance and administration. “But this one is especially meaningful because it is for the work we do in the community that we take so seriously.”