PLANTATION — Black businesses are ready to transition from start-up to legacy builders, but entrepreneurs want to know how to make the move effectively. They know it is an imperative for survival that would take them from being mom-and-pop corner stores to enterprises that create jobs and impact the economy.

That’s the take-away from panel discussions and remarks at the third annual South Florida State of the Black Business forum and networking reception held Friday at the Renaissance Hotel in Plantation.

“Job Creation & Innovation” was the theme of the forum, with a focus on changing the way business is done. The Mosiac Group presented two panels– one featuring public and the other private sector leaders. “Evolve or Die,” a reference to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, was a catch-phrase tossed out during some discussions. Following closely was appropriate use of technology to help businesses survive economic shifts.

 Panelists didn’t underestimate the value of acquiring proper certifications to get noticed for contracts and projects.

“Those of you in the construction industry, I can’t tell you how important it is to get LEED certification,” said Michelle Andrewin, referring to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. She advocates for small and minority businesses to get contracts from her employer, the School District of Palm Beach County. “Make yourself attractive to be chosen. Don’t sleep on this.”

Lauderhill City Commissioner Ken Thurston underscored the point by noting that any new residential construction in his city of 70,000 must show the location of an electric car plug-in and where solar panels will be placed.

Guidance on securing public sector contracts and how government can help create jobs dominated the first half of the program but the business owners wanted to hear more about how those in the private sector can boost employment.

The link between business and jobs was underscored by Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness during introductory remarks.

 “If you don’t own a business, your folks won’t get hired,” he said. “When you start a business, who do you usually put to work in there? Your family members. So, if you are not creating jobs, then they are hurting because they are not working.”

Those who are already in business in South Florida may feel uncertain now, since more than 50 percent of all black businesses opened just in 2002 and are still relatively new. The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest data suggest that black businesses in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area increased 69.9 percent between 2002 and 2007, from 58,559 to 99,512. The data, released February 2011, don’t reflect the effect, if any, of the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent Great Recession.

State-wide, in 2007, only one-tenth of all businesses are black-owned and Palm Beach County shows room for strong growth. Census data from 2007 show that of the more than 163,000 businesses in the county, blacks own 8.9 percent. 

H. Ben, Frazier, an entrepreneur from Palm Beach County, described the idea of hosting the forum during Black Business Month — August — as ingenious. He was disappointed, though, that the forum happened at the end of the month, which, he said, didn’t give enough time to raise awareness. Still, he hungered for news about what was next for businesses owned by blacks. He left wanting.

“My desire was to attend an event that should have been loaded with industrialists, manufacturers and engineers who would present or expose their new products and services to a group of self-made black business owners,” Frazier said.

Out of the recession came opportunity, panel members reported. Several found niches or reintroduced products and sold them in a different way when they were faced with job losses.

Felecia Hatcher, founder of Feverish Ice Cream and Gourmet Popsicles, decided to sell popsicles to adults after she and her husband lost their jobs in 2008. Kevin Michaels, cofounder and managing partner of technology company Invizio, offered information technology services to companies that were jettisoning their IT departments.

Black businesses haven’t exploited all the basic
technology available, Michaels says. Panel members suggested that attendees innovate more, mostly by using technology and social media.

“You have to think about how you can solve problems for yourself and for others,” Michaels said. “Everyone has access to the same building blocks now.”

If a lot of the advice given entailed what entrepreneurs could do for themselves, Cassius Butts, regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, reacquainted attendees with an independent federal agency whose founding dates back to the Great Depression and World War II. “This is not your grandfather’s or father’s SBA,” he said.

The SBA’s mission, Butts said, is basically the same as always: to provide access to capital, training, contracts and disaster relief for small businesses. How it accomplishes its goals is what has changed.

You said that we required too much paperwork, and we agreed,” Butts said. “Our application is down from 44 pages to only 11.” Butts touted an app to find SBA support near you as a sign of a more agile SBA.

Come Oct. 1, South Florida small businesses will have another source of funding. The Black Business Investor Fund will administer the Small Business Loan Fund, which has been created to provide SBA Community Advantage Loans to established small and minority-owned firms. With these tools and its continued relationship with SCORE, Butts said, the SBA can really be a part of the solution.