Ron Busby founded the U.S. Black Chambers in 2009. The Washington, D.C.-based organization advocates for Black-owned businesses, improves access to capital and contracts, and provides free training for entrepreneurs. Before starting the USBC, Busby founded USA Superclean, which he grew from $150,000 in annual revenue to $15 million in 10 years. He's also held executive positions at Coca-Cola and IBM. Here, Busby talks about the challenges facing Black entrepreneurs today and how fellow business owners can advance the cause. --As told to Kevin J. Ryan
I did some work for Barack Obama while he was running for president, and I got to meet him in Arizona. When he was elected, he said, "I won't forget about you." I was like, "Yeah, OK, whatever." Then I got the opportunity to come down to D.C. and start the U.S. Black Chambers.
I remember riding on one of those double-decker tour buses when I first got to Washington. I saw the D.C. license plates that read "Taxation Without Representation," and I thought: That's who Black people are. We've been paying into and investing in a system that has never really represented our interests.
Of course, we've had civil rights organizations--my father was in the Black Panthers--but I've always felt like there was a need for someone outside of government to move the business agenda forward, to keep it on pace with other organizations and business voices.
My son lives in Los Angeles, and he takes public transportation to get to his job. And he's saying, "Dad, I'm scared to go to work. I'm scared because I've got to take the bus and Covid-19 is rampant. And then I'm scared because I've got to get through all of the protesting and deal with the curfews as a Black man. I don't know what I'm going to have to face."
Only 33 percent of Black firms have credit, and that's not because they don't want it. I could have a great business model, a decent credit score, be college-educated, own my home. I can go into the bank looking for $100,000. My White neighbor--no college degree, renting his home--can go into the bank needing $100,000 for the same business plan. Two things are going to happen. One, he's going to be called Mr. Jones, I'm going to be called Ron. And two, he's going to get his full loan, and I'm going to get $40,000.
As a community, in the past we've said, "I got this $40,000. Thank you, Lord!" But that's not going to work. You're already setting yourself up for failure.
That's why I tell our members: We have to support local Black-owned banks. They make 70 percent of their loans back to Black borrowers. We have to go where they're supporting us.
The average Black firm is doing $74,580 a year. We don't have size or scale. We're going to lose between 35 and 40 percent of all Black businesses in 2020 because of the challenges of Covid-19.
Those firms that are going out of business, they all have clients and customers and vendors and employees. That could be an opportunity for mergers, joint ventures, and acquisitions. What we're saying to our members is: Let's go find the firms that are going out of business in your industry and see what we can do. Let's start planning now to take over some of the businesses that won't be here in 2021.
Over the past four or so years, we've heard a great deal about making America great again. Black people want America to be great as well, but in order for there to be a great America, there's got to be a great Black America. And in order for there to be a great Black America, there's got to be great Black businesses. We need great Black Chambers and we need White and Black consumers. We need people to support Black-owned businesses by buying their products and services.
We talk about civil rights and social justice, but there's got to be economic justice as well.
There are a few things non-Black business owners can do. We ask companies to participate in the 15 percent pledge: Promise to buy at least 15 percent of your inventory from Black suppliers.
Corporate America often says, "We'd love to do more business with Black firms, but we can't find them." So in 2015, we launched a directory of 115,000 Black-owned businesses. It's also for individuals looking to buy from and support Black-owned firms.
Juneteenth, or June 19, is the date that African Americans found out they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. On that date this year, we'll be launching a new version of the directory where you'll be able to find vendors of certain sizes in specific industries.
If you're a business owner, understand that Black employees and potential employees are facing challenges that you might never, ever understand. And I'm not even saying that you should have sympathy for a problem you've never had to deal with. But do understand that right now we are facing challenges that even we have never seen.