wealth inequality

Black-owned businesses, hit hard by the pandemic, face new — and old — hurdles

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As interim president and former chair of the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Carol Guess has helped guide local Black-owned businesses through significant times of tumult, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing fights for racial justice and economic equity.

With her at the helm, the Chamber has implemented myriad programs to combat the economic fallout form the pandemic, offering Black-owned businesses new programs to network and build multi-generational wealth.

Black-owned businesses were hit especially hard by the pandemic. They were five times more likely than white business owners to be denied assistance federal disaster help, including through the Paycheck Protection Program, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

And recent surveys by H&R Block found that roughly 53 percent of Black business owners lost at least half of their revenue since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to 37 percent of white business owners.

Before becoming interim president, Guess served as chair of the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce. She is principal attorney at the Guess Firm, PLLC, Attorneys and Counselors at Law, where she practices in wills and probate law. She earned her law degree at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University and her bachelor’s at Vanderbilt University.

The Chronicle spoke to Guess about the state of Black business in Houston as the pandemic continues and supply chain disruptions and labor shortages persist.

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Q: Black-owned businesses bore an uneven brunt of the economic fallout from COVID-19. Can you explain a bit about why that was, and how that might exacerbate inequality in the future?

A: The negative economic effects of racism on Black wealth over the years, legislation such as segregation (essentially separate but unequal), Jim Crow, and discriminatory practices, such as redlining.

These are not criticisms of the United States — these are facts about acts that occurred as part of our American history that have virtually guaranteed that Blacks would start and lag behind in business, as well as other areas of life, such as health and the maintenance of the family unit.

As a result, many Black-owned businesses start off in precarious positions, self-funding, lacking capital, access to markets, and saddled with small margins.

Because of these issues, when major disruptors hit the marketplace such as COVID-19, many Black businesses, very vulnerable to begin with, cannot withstand the negative impacts of such events.

If, as a society, we decide not to institute measures to close the gaps in these areas, these problems will persist, ultimately creating an even greater wealth gap for Blacks, eventually significantly dragging down the U.S. economy.

Q: What can be done to reverse that trend?

A: Consistent greater access to business education, mentorship, and access to capital can reverse this trend.

Also, nondiscriminatory treatment of Black-owned businesses that have demonstrated viability when competing for contracts, both in the private and public sectors.

Q: What are the biggest issues you continue to hear from members about?

A: Lack of workers due to the pandemic, and access to capital.

Q: How has COVID-19 changed the way you think about your role, and the Chamber’s role more broadly?

A: One of the tenets of our motto is advocacy.

During this time, I believe that the Chamber’s role is to be at the forefront of advocating for our members against the barriers to business we face that have been brought to light due to the pandemic, and to work collaboratively with those corporations, nonprofit organizations, interested persons and governmental entities that seek to align with us in our mission to empower Black-owned businesses, and therefore, our economy as a whole.

Q: How have supply chain issues been affecting member businesses? Are there specific sectors where the problems have been particularly acute?

A: I have received the most negative feedback from members in the service industry, especially restaurateurs and caterers.

Q: Do you think supply chain issues have been getting better or worse?

A: I believe that supply chain issues have remained the same to this point, and that the businesses have figured out ways to handle the shortages to stay open and deliver the same level of service that they have become known for, be it through collaborating with other businesses, or marketing best sellers more to accommodate for the losses sustained on other items due to supply chain issues.

Q: In what ways are member businesses being affected by the tight labor market and resulting lack of available workers? How have businesses adapted to meet demands of workers for things such as higher pay or remote work?

A: Our members have been incentivizing workers, offering higher wages and greater benefits, such as flex-time.

Q: Are there any legislative items that the chamber is keeping an eye on?

A: We are consistently monitoring the acts of all legislative bodies to ensure that our members are provided a meaningful opportunity to participate in the economic opportunities therefrom.

robert.downen@chron.com

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