Spotlight On: John Harmon, Founder, President & CEO, African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey

Spotlight On: John Harmon, Founder, President & CEO, African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey

2023-02-17T12:15:16-05:00February 17th, 2023|Economy, North & Central Jersey, Spotlight On|

3 min read February 2023 — Invest: was joined by John Harmon, Founder, President & CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, to discuss the challenges facing black businesses in the current economy and what can be done to enhance equitable opportunities for diverse populations. “We all have to be more intentional about leveraging diversity, equity, and inclusion as a competitive advantage,” he said.

What is your assessment of the opportunities for Black businesses in New Jersey today?

I think what isn’t getting talked about enough is that there are over 88,000 Black businesses in the state according to census data. It’s positive to see that growth, but it also can’t be ignored. We are here to advocate for this significant segment of business in New Jersey. There are 1.2 million Black residents here, and yet it is the single demographic that is stagnating economically across the state. We’re talking the highest poverty and unemployment with the lowest median income and home ownership. So, we are working hard to collaborate with the public and private sectors to mitigate those numbers. Our Chamber advocates at the state, county and municipal level to encourage more equitable inclusion of the Black population and businesses.

What are some of the challenges you’re seeing small businesses face, especially minority and women owned?

We’re seeing a long-term issue with project labor agreements. New Jersey, in general, tends to heavily favor labor and trade unions, which we don’t have a problem with, but there is a fundamental tension here because if every New Jersey resident and business owner is paying taxes and those resources are being utilized to fund public projects, the policies should be more equitable. The Biden Administration has mandated that all federal government contracts under $35 million dollars be exempt from requiring a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) which means that businesses do not have to be a signatory to the union in order to participate. However, the threshold level for this exemption in New Jersey is $5 million dollars and has been at this level since it was implemented by Governor James McGreevey via his first executive order in 2002, therefore we are advocating to align New Jersey PLA’s to the federal government’s. If we succeed, it would be a huge win for small businesses who desire to operate independently.

How are global economic factors impacting Black businesses?

When I think about macroeconomic concerns, I’d say that if America has a cold economically, Black citizens will have pneumonia. That is how staggering these impacts like supply chain shortages and inflation can have on Black businesses. 93% of Black business owners in New Jersey are sole proprietorships, so any disruptions can have severe consequences. Because the state of New Jersey does not have a policy to incentivize Black businesses and entrepreneurship like Philadelphia or New York, they are marginalized and won’t be able to grow and access these opportunities to scale and create more capacity and create more opportunities to work for people who want to work for these enterprises. The effort must come from the public sector to be more engaged in increasing economic opportunities for Black businesses. Although we have made progress, we could be a lot further down the road if we get a little more intentional about getting the underperforming sectors in a better place both economically and socially.

What are some of the recent partnerships you’ve established to drive this equity effort in the New Jersey business landscape?

We have a good relationship with the state government and its various agencies including the Economic Development Authority and Port Authority, which have been responsive to our inquiries. The Commissioner of the Department of Transportation has been an exceptional partner. We have several institutes of higher education we’re getting a lot of value in partnering with, especially Rutgers, to build capacity. We’ve also connected with Kean University to host a major strategic planning session, also county colleges such as Berkeley College, Rowan at Burlington County and Middlesex County College and others have been phenomenal collaborators.

What are the next steps to achieve more equity for Black businesses?

We have a relationship with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce to connect more Black businesses with corporations in the state. There is also an increasing appetite to intentionally get more Black professionals on boards and in the C-Suite and securing more contract and career opportunities as well as corporate investment. We’re also expanding the footprint of our relationships with financial institutions to encourage more minority opportunities. But at the end of the day, we need to see a greater return on investment. Given that 94% of Black voters elected the Murphy Administration and play a significant role in elections across the state, Blacks in New Jersey have not received an equitable return for that support. Our Black caucus is working hard with the state legislature, but we have a way to go in working for the desired level of transformation to occur. Ultimately, we would like to see our legislators get more focused on economics. We all must be more intentional about leveraging diversity, equity, and inclusion as a competitive advantage and not an emotional exchange or charity.

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