Special to South Florida Times

Business owners, elected officials and others heard a stirring call at a recent forum to support African-American owned businesses.

“There is $17 billion in African-American income in South Florida, enough to generate 8,000 new jobs if two percent of that income is directed strategically towards black owned businesses,” said John Templeton, co-founder of National Black Business Month, an initiative that encourages people to support  black businesses for 31 days during every August.

Templeton told the gathering. “When you support black business, you’re helping to create jobs, strengthen communities, and build institutions. There’s a quadruple bottom-line benefit.”

Templeton’s call came as he moderated a panel discussion at the South Florida State of Black Business Forum and Networking Reception held at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Boca Raton on Aug. 27.

Florida’s black-owned businesses increased by 80,000 businesses from 2002- 07, for a total of just over 180,000. That puts Florida third among states, after New York and Georgia, with the most black-owned businesses.  Texas and California round out the top five.

But although the number of black owned businesses is increasing nationwide, it pales in comparison to white-owned businesses. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, as of 2007, the 1.9 million black businesses nationwide accounted for just 7.1 percent of all businesses.

Some panelists echoed Templeton’s comments. Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said small businesses will bring the country out of the current recession.

State Rep. Masckenson “Mack” Bernard, D- District 84, who represents some of the poorestareas in Palm Beach County, agreed that businesses were the key to addressing the high unemployment rate.

“I’m pro business,” he said. “I have 40 percent unemployment in some [parts] of my district.”

Beatrice Louissant, president/CEO of the Southern Florida Minority Supplier Development Council, said businesses would help solve the problems in the black community. 

“We could solve all of our problems in the black community if we increase black business,” she said.

Instead of telling kids to “get a good job,” the focus should be on creating businesses, she said.

Annie Ruth Nelson of West Palm Beach, whose Blue Front Barbecue Sauce is sold in national grocery chains, said she was willing to mentor young business owners.  Her late husband started the business 46 years ago.  “There are a lot of young people here that have a need to understand how this whole operation of business works,” Nelson said. “We need more symposiums like this and more training from those who are experienced, who could help them along and mentor them.”

Panelist Jerome Hutchinson Jr. founder and president/CEO of ICABA Media Holdings, agreed, saying successful business owners must mentor others.

“If we’re going to see growth in the black business sector, we have to do more to support each other,” he said.

Such support is already available. Panelist Bill Diggs, president/CEO of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, said his organization was ready to help business owners  navigate the politics of business.

“We can work on your behalf to get you the opportunities, when they arise,” he said.

Diggs helped negotiate a share of the work on the new Florida Marlins stadium in Miami for blacks and also with the University of Miami Life Science Park.  He is now pushing for  black businesses to get a share in the work available at the Port of Miami.

Panelist Lia Gaines, executive director of the Center for Enterprise Opportunity, said business owners have allies who can help them to sustain their companies but they must be willing to seek them out.

Her company, she said, has provided developmental services and capital access for more than 360 businesses and has provided more than $9.2 million in financing to small and minority enterprises and community development projects.

Ann Marie Sorrell, president/CEO of the Mosaic Group marketing, public relations, and event management firm, spearheaded the session.

Sorrell and partner Sophia Nelson called on the public and private sectors to come up with strategies on how to thrive and sustain businesses during the current recession. 

For Darren Studstill, 40, owner and director of operations for Cityside Suites in West Palm Beach, the forum provided an opportunity to hear others share their knowledge. 

The former National Football League player said he approaches business just as he did professional football – with a profound work ethic and competitiveness, while putting value on learning. His family has been in business for 20 years but for him it has been only three years.

“I think this [forum] is very useful because you get to see others who are dealing with the same challenges you face as a business owner. It’s inspiring to see those who are already successful in business, actually giving back.”

Suzan McDowell and Carlton Lamar Robinson were also on the panel.

Attendees at the forum included Congressman Alcee Hastings, D- Miramar, who said he was concerned about job creation.

“There will be some of you who will become millionaires and some of you will be dead broke in five years but you can avoid it if you work together,” Hastings said.