News Column

Q&A With Chamber CEO Bill Diggs: Supporting Black-owned Businesses

March 11, 2013

Jane Wooldridge

Since 2006, Bill Diggs has been president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce. Created in 1974 to foster development of minority-owned businesses, the chamber facilitates networking and skills building in areas such as business operations, grant applications, technology and marketing/branding. Among its committees are its Young Professionals Network and its Women's Business Council. Upcoming programs include its annual Business Leaders Lunch, slated for March 22.

Q. Tell us about the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, the organization you run.

There are four people on staff. We have over 500 chamber businesses that we represent and our goal is to provide them with technical services that assists them in running their businesses more efficiently. We aspire for them to gain more contracts in the public and private business environment due to their being involved with our chamber.

We act as the main advocate for black businesses in South Florida. Over 75 percent of our member businesses are black owned. And virtually every major corporation in Miami is a member of our chamber with the idea that they can access the black business vendor community through their partnership with our chamber. We are Florida's largest black chamber.

Q. What concerns are top of mind now for your members?

Their main concerns are access to capital and skills building. Many of them are veteran business owners that just need money and opportunities to compete in an open fair market. Many of our start-up businesses are struggling to keep the lights on. We are now marketing our services to start-up businesses and having good success.

Q. Do most of your members feel that the economy has improved? Or are they still struggling much as they were a two years ago?

The economy appears to be improving for many of our members. Things are coming back. The real issue is that the sensitivity toward assisting new black businesses has waned dramatically due to the reallocation of diversity personnel within major companies. Procurement specialists who knew the advantages of building sophisticated minority purchasing programs did not survive the economic downturn that has taken place.

Q. It seems like there are a lot of chambers of commerce in the region. Why does Miami-Dade need a separate chamber for minority businesses?

We are the only one that focuses on black businesses as a priority. In this community we are still an under-served business community.

Q. How are the services your organization offers differ from those offered by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce?

Our services are specifically geared to the small and minority based businesses. So our training is built and delivered with a strong bent toward the cultural sensitivities that are prevalent in the Miami community. However, we consider our chamber to be a complementary organization to the GMCC.

Q. Unemployment among blacks is far higher than in the general population. Why is that, in your view, and what would improve that situation?

Racism and intolerance of differences still exists in America. In order for that to improve, radical change must take place in all segments of our community. It must change at the grass roots level of the procurement community. It must change and be implemented at the executive level if large black businesses are given the chance to grow. There is still red lining in the lending community so it s hard for black businesses to get money to grow their companies.

There is a growing trend to bring back affirmative action programs to municipalities across this country. Once the county and the school board have finished their disparity studies and the racist trends are documented and exposed, we are hopeful that our leadership at both of these entities will have the courage to finally re-implement initiatives to encourage increased buying and vendor-procured contracts with black owned businesses.

Q. Many of your member businesses are small and neighborhood-oriented. What does it take for them to be successful in this uneven economic environment?

They must standardize the look and feel of their businesses, i.e. all of their chairs need to match, etc. They must have consistent customer service day in and day out and then we (all of Miami) must support them by frequenting their businesses. The idea that they can present a competitive product for a competitive price over a long period of time is key to their success.

Q. Everybody likes success stories. Describe to us a few recent successes among your business members.

One of our members is a CPA firm that grew out of a past Big Six accounting firm employee that went out on his own. He has been able to become a virtual business manager for many small firms that ordinarily could not afford a licensed CPA as a part of the fiscal management team.

Another is a construction company that has secured major contracts due to our advocacy at the private business level. Another has increased its business contracts with the school system because of our push to change the local hiring ordinance that now exists within the MDCPS.

Q. What are the biggest hurdles for your member businesses?

The largest hurdle that small businesses face is with the banking industry. All of them have direct banking relationships with banks for checking and check cashing services, but these same banks do not lend money to these businesses.

Q. What has been your proudest achievement in this job?

My proudest achievement has been increasing the overall relevance of our chamber in this community. We consider ourselves to be the go-to organization for economic development in the black community. Our board members and our businesses are now becoming top of mind when you think about being inclusive of hiring black businesses or you are making decisions about minorities.

Q. And what have been the concerns that keep you awake at night?

The education of our children and their being prepared for the next generations of jobs and significant business opportunities. With that in mind, we started a mentoring organization called the Young Professional Network. The goal is to create an organization that will foster communication and collaboration among them. It is also a leadership development company designed to build this generation's leaders. We constantly tell them that the future is now. We tell them that if no one is passing the baton, either start a new race or take the baton.

Q. What's the best advice you ever got?

From my mentor David Palmer. He said "to hell with tradition, do it your way and if you are right success will be yours. And if you fail, just don't do the same thing twice!"

Q. Tell us one thing about you that your coworkers don't know.

That while working for a major telecommunications company that I won a national public speaking competition.

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(c)2013 The Miami Herald

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