2 min read July 2022 — Invest: was joined by Clifton Harris, president and CEO of the Urban League of Middle Tennessee, to discuss how equitable and accessible business opportunities for communities of color must be a cornerstone for the economic development of the region. “You can’t have diversity and inclusion without looking at it through an equitable lens. That requires a long-term commitment,” he said.
What have been the key milestones for the Urban League over the past year and how are your priorities shaping up for the rest of 2022 and beyond?
We added $5.3 million to our budget this year which is the largest growth in our history. This has given us an unprecedented opportunity to scale up our programs and provide more resources to our constituents. We have also expanded our Equity in Action initiative, which seeks to bring more people of color into C-suite executive positions. We also want corporations to expand their procurement practices to engage minority-owned vendors. The Urban League has also launched the Real Estate Developers program, funded by Amazon, to give our cohort of 13 business men and women training and toolkits to succeed in real estate development. There are a lot of jobs moving into the Middle Tennessee region, so reskilling and upskilling the residents of Middle Tennessee to meet the needs of these companies will be vital to the economic growth of the area.
What are the key challenges facing the Middle Tennessee region for the minority business community?
It’s all about equitable access to capital, which is the biggest single impediment for people of color getting into business. People know their trades and skill sets, but they need support in finding those funding avenues. That is where the Urban League plays a role in teaching our members how to work on their business, and not just in their business. We are also making career opportunities more transparent for these communities and offering training to prepare people for well-paying jobs in high demand fields such as healthcare, information technology (IT), hospitality, business services and advanced manufacturing.
What are the institutional barriers for people of color and how can large businesses change that to create more equitable opportunities?
Many institutions don’t make the cut because they have biases that get in the way. Our Equity in Action program deals with that very thing. You can’t eliminate a person’s bias, but you can challenge it so they can change their behavior and make a bigger commitment to bringing people of color into the executive suite positions and access to resources they have traditionally been locked out of. You can’t have diversity and inclusion without looking at it through an equitable lens. That requires a long-term commitment. The bottom line is that diversity of thought will increase a company’s revenue. The McKinsey Foundation has released a study demonstrating as much. If more business opportunities were available to people of color, the region’s GDP would grow by $10 billion.
Is there a concern that current residents might feel left behind with this rapid growth across the region?
If we are staying focused on sustainable growth, we have to make sure it is distributed throughout the entire community. That’s why we need to prepare more people with the skills to join these high demand industries moving in. Human capital is our most precious resource, and if we can provide the right opportunities, it will go a long way in other areas such as affordable housing and growing generational wealth.
What is your perspective on what a post-pandemic economy will look like compared to before 2020?
The fact is, going back to normal isn’t an option, because normal never worked for underserved communities of color. The genie is out of the bottle with this issue and we must close the equity and prosperity gaps that have plagued minority populations for decades. A major key will be educating more people on the different markets and economic factors impacting the region. It can be a complex issue, so by making sure this information is communicated clearly and freely to these communities, we are getting to a good start in informing them of the opportunities that are on the horizon.
What is your outlook for the next two to three years and how is that shaping the priorities of the Urban League moving forward?
The next few years will be about improving workforce development. We have to make sure people have access to economic development opportunities, and that individuals aren’t locked out of any industries, and have avenues to capital. We cannot continue to talk about sustainable growth and not talk about the distribution of it. We have to prepare our children for opportunities as much as we are for adults. FedEx is looking to hire 1,000 pilots who could make $800 an hour. Kids don’t know that so we need to teach them. We need to tell people what they don’t know so we can help them move forward on the generational wealth spectrum.
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