The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launches Access America to gain a toehold with Hispanics and other minorities.
By Holly Ocasio Rizzo
HISPANIC BUSINESS® magazine
Tom Donohue makes no pretense about the goals of Access America, a new initiative by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to enhance networking with and to increase access to capital for minority- and women-owned businesses. “We’re doing this in enlightened self-interest,” says Mr. Donohue, the chamber’s president. “If we don’t get minority and women business owners into our organization, somebody else will.” Access America, which kicked off in March, will run as long as it’s needed, says its director, Reta Lewis, a chamber vice-president. The program is in part a response to Census Bureau statistics showing that the number of minority businesses has grown four times faster than the national average and that they make up 14.6 percent of all U.S. businesses. Hispanics account for the largest share of U.S. minority-owned firms. The Milken Institute, however, has noted that minority-owned businesses obtained only 2 percent of private equity investments and 3 percent of Small Business Investment Company investments in 2001. To help maintain that growth momentum and to educate its own members about the minority marketplace, Access America will focus initially on sharing its members’ experience and business knowledge, the chamber says. The organization’s eight regional offices will decide how that will be done. Mr. Donohue foresees cybercasts, face-to-face meetings, and partnerships with universities and businesses to disseminate information. “We’re not inventing something new,” he says. In the field, the chamber will seek partnerships with minority chambers and business associations. “We’ll look for partners to do the work for us,” Ms. Lewis says, “but we’ll go where we need to be, use the Internet to reach people, become involved in local organizations.” Marissa Anchia, executive director for the Southwest region, hopes to hold a summit for Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado before year-end. The meeting would identify region-specific issues that confront minorities and women in business. “It’s actually kind of sad we haven’t engaged these issues before now,” Ms. Anchia says. “In the past, we never took a leadership role.” Already, she adds, Hispanic chambers of commerce in three large Texas cities have expressed interest in Access America. The chamber expects to deal not only with the paperwork, such as business plans, that can make a difference in getting growth capital, but also in navigating the network of lending institutions and venture capitalists. At the national level, the chamber plans a mentorship program pairing 100 minority and women executives with established CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The CEOs are expected to show the way to networking opportunities, capital, and leadership positions. Participating companies include Eastman Kodak, Federal Express, Coca-Cola, and Merrill Lynch. Minority businesses won’t come to Access America’s table empty-handed. “A minority business often has an edge in marketing to its own community, and it’s a big edge,” says Peter Navarro, associate professor of business and government at the University of California, Irvine. Many minority business people find growth support in networks outside formal organizations, according to Daniel Rodriguez, assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “There are a lot of Hispanics making their businesses happen, but when you get to a certain level, personal contacts and family contacts all make a difference in how well a business can grow,” he says. “The good-old-boy network works because there’s comfort and trust among the people in it. If the U.S. Chamber can facilitate stronger, faster relationships by bringing together people with common business backgrounds, it will really help level the playing field for Hispanics.” Mr. Rodriguez suggests that Hispanics who are relatively new to the United States may stand to benefit most from Access America, because they’re still learning to negotiate the pathways of American business. “Networking is necessary, and everybody knows it,” he says. Getting into the network, however, can be challenging – especially in sectors where the chamber has seen minority growth. Growth in service businesses has slowed, Ms. Lewis notes, while minorities increasingly own technology, construction, and biotech businesses. The introductory period for the Access America program is expected to last two years – long enough for newcomers and established veterans to see more similarities than differences in each other. “Whether it’s a minority- or woman-owned business, it has the same needs and concerns as any business of any size,” Ms. Lewis says. “Around the chamber, we like to say, ‘The big come for the small, and the small come for the big.’”
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