Black business leaders blast stubborn stereotypes despite success

Filed under Minorities, News, Special Reports

By Ann Meyer

John Rogers (left) of Ariel Investments discussed business opportunities and challenges with James Reynolds (center) of Loop Capital Markets and Quintin Primo of Capri Capital Partners at the Black Management Association conference Saturday. Photo by Rich Foreman Photo copyright 2011

If you want to change the status quo, don’t give up the fight.

That was a recurring theme at the Black Management Association conference that drew hundreds of minority executives Saturday to Northwestern University’s  James Allen Center in Evanston.

Despite growing numbers of blacks and black-owned businesses in the United States, African Americans continue to have their skills, track record and sheer numbers discounted, panelists said.

“Because of Affirmative Action, people come to your office and they’re surprised you have a real office,” said John Rogers Jr., founder and chief executive officer at Ariel Investments, a money management firm in Chicago. “They perceive you got into college because you were black, not because you were smart.”

What’s more, certain industry sectors continue to quietly shun African Americans, Rogers said. For example, institutional endowment funds rarely do business with black-owned money-management firms, nor do they hire blacks internally to manage the funds. “For all of the wealth that’s been created by these major endowments, for us to be left out is morally reprehensible,” he said.

What’s more, Rogers said, “These are institutions that say, `We care about diversity and inclusion.’” Yet, their records speak for themselves. “After fighting this battle all these years, nothing really has changed,” Rogers said.

Minority marketers battle on

African Americans also continue to be underrepresented in corporations’ marketing plans, despite the business case that can be made for targeting the rapidly growing minority market, according to marketing executives who spoke at an afternoon session.

“The burden is on us to keep the fight going even though it gets very tiring and burdensome,” said Esther Franklin, executive vice president and director of cultural identities at Starcom MediaVest Group.

For corporations to include more minorities in their marketing plans, they need to hear why it’s important.  “Let your voice be heard. You are the ones who are going to help make a difference,” Franklin said to the largely minority audience.

Building business to create wealth

Starting a business can be one way to affect change. “As an entrepreneur, you have a direct opportunity to create wealth,” said Quintin Primo, chairman and chief executive at Capri Capital Partners, a real estate investment management firm in Chicago.

Yet trying to navigate the racial issues present in the business world can be challenging. It means climbing past the minority set-aside programs designed to help level the playing field, said James Reynolds Jr., founder and chief executive officer at Loop Capital Markets, an investment banking firm. “You can start a business and get intoxicated with minority set-asides, and you die there because you can’t grow there,” Reynolds said.

But once minority-owned businesses find success, attracting talent becomes easier because diverse candidates appreciate the absence of the glass ceiling. “They’re sure it will be an environment that will take them as far as they want to go,” he said.

Going against the grain

To be successful, African American entrepreneurs must have the courage to go against the grain, panelists said.

For John Rogers, that meant being the basketball player from Princeton who carried Forbes and Barron’s with him on the bus as the team traveled to games. The time spent reading would pay off when Rogers launched his business at the age of 24.

For Primo, taking a less-traveled path helped his company survive the tough economy better than many of its competitors. The firm had shifted many of  its investments to multi-family housing, while its competitors were caught holding strip malls and other commercial property when the real market plummeted.

“We’re always looking at the world slightly differently,” Primo said. “In this world that changes daily, you have to be adroit, quick on your feet,” he said.

Now Primo is setting his sights on international real estate investments. He believes being an African American will be an advantage when investing in the emerging markets of Africa, India and Asia.

Primo and the other finance executives also spoke of relying on each other for support. Rogers managed Primo’s first $5,000 investment, growing it to $8,000 in two years, Primo said. And Reynolds said Rogers was his first client. “We are all three very close friends,” Reynolds said.

Yet the men don’t necessarily agree on everything. While Primo will be hunting for new business overseas, Rogers plans to stick close to home. “I’m going to focus on being black and local,”  Rogers said. “Chicago is one of the six biggest global cities, so I keep thinking there’s business here.”

Post updated at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to include photo by Rich Foreman.

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