It is widely acknowledged that entrepreneurs are hard-working, persistent individuals who thrive on a challenge. People who start their own businesses typically possess an idea—maybe even a dream—and will work tirelessly to achieve success. They often start out with the odds against them and face obstacles such as obtaining financial capital, developing purchasing capabilities, and gaining market access. These obstacles can be even greater when the entrepreneur is a member of a minority population and is operating in an urban or distressed region.

Dr. Forrest S. “Sam” Carter, associate professor of marketing in the Eli Broad College of Business and interim faculty director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship, knows these challenges well and cares deeply about them. That’s one of the reasons why his collaborative teaching and research partnerships are designed to provide the knowledge, tools, and practical applications aimed at helping aspiring entrepreneurs become successful.

One particular focus for Carter is helping Black and African American entrepreneurs get established and flourish in a competitive global market. He created and leads the H.E.R.O.E.S. Project: Helping Entrepreneurs Revitalize Our Economy and Society. The primary goal is to impact the number of entrepreneurs in urban communities and strengthen their ability to grow and thrive. Carter and his community partners plan to accomplish this by developing networks, enabling mentoring, expanding capabilities, and launching student start-ups.

Economic Wealth and Consumers in Urban and Distressed Communities

Carter is collaborating with the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce (MBCC) and its Lansing chapter to establish the MSU Collegiate Black Chamber of Commerce, the first collegiate chapter of its kind in the nation. MBCC is associated with the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce, which estimates that the Michigan chapter holds the largest concentration of economic wealth representing Black businesses, with more than $3.6 billion in combined total revenue and more than 7,500 employees.

U.S. Census 2007 statistics indicate that Black or African American consumers contribute nearly $9 billion in economic buying power to Michigan’s economy through purchases of major products, goods and services, and commodities. The MBCC provides access to resources and opportunities that contribute to the growth and viability of businesses owned by Black citizens in Michigan.

All chapters in the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce network adhere to five pillars of service: advocacy, access to capital, Chamber development, best practices, and contracting.

Challenges for Black and African American Entrepreneurs

According to Ken Harris, MBCC president and chief executive officer, access to capital is the chief factor that limits establishing and growing a business for a Black entrepreneur. Other factors include business management training and experience, and purchasing and contract procurement. These hurdles can be minimized by connecting and sharing with fellow entrepreneurs.

“Relationships are a meaningful ingredient to entrepreneurial development. We focus a significant amount of effort on advocacy and message, community investment, and professional development, and that takes considerable networking with our entrepreneur-members. Now students with business interests can connect and share experiences in a way that wasn’t available to me when I was a student at Michigan State University,” says Harris.

Carter similarly recognizes the value of developing a networking model for students: “Social capital is a vital component. Many students and beginning entrepreneurs have never connected with somebody who’s been through the ups and downs of owning a business. We have role models in the Black community, and many are willing to share the joys, challenges, and realities of being an entrepreneur.”

In addition to Harris, another community partner working closely with Carter and the students is Tyrone D. Sanders, Jr., an attorney with Public Affairs Associates, Inc. and president of the Lansing Black Chamber of Commerce. Together they spent a considerable amount of time carefully constructing bylaws that establish an MSU chapter organization with full autonomy, full connection, and voting ability.

“It is our goal to equip these students with the tools to become successful entrepreneurs. By partnering collegiate members with mentor businesses, we can ensure that they attain the knowledge necessary to realize their dream of becoming business owners. We applaud Dr. Carter and these students for taking this important first step,” says Sanders Jr., also an MSU alum.

Carter’s research and work with students takes into account the fact that Black-owned businesses are one of the fastest growing segments of society. Yet statistics indicate just five percent of those businesses have employees, and only 20 percent have revenue above $1 million.

“Is the economy pushing more minorities into self-employment? That is a question I ask in my research,” says Carter. “We need to continue to evaluate the impacts of the current economic climate on Black business owners and their ability to operate.”

Addressing challenges among Black entrepreneurs and learning from their experiences is an important element of Carter’s research and work with students. Coursework incorporates organization and managerial skills, but the practical applications are invaluable for those with startup ventures or visions of startups.

Entrepreneurial Role Models

Tico Duckett, president and CEO of Duckett Brothers Distributing, is an MSU alumnus and former athlete who excelled as a member of the Spartan football team. He began his business 14 years ago, and is preparing for the next level of company expansion and growth. He is working with Carter and the students on a development plan and welcomes their involvement.

“The students have youthful enthusiasm, and with Sam Carter’s guidance they also have access to the best research and resources available. I love working with them and learning about the latest and greatest in technology, best practices, and breakthrough discoveries,” says Duckett.

The MSU EDA University Center for Regional Economic Innovation (created with financial assistance and support from the United States Department of Commerce – Economic Development Administration) provided funding for the H.E.R.O.E.S. Project.

Now that the MSU chapter of the MBCC has been created and is moving forward, Carter is looking to formulate the experience into a national model for establishing collaborative student chapters in other areas that have Black Chamber of Commerce chapters and college campuses. He envisions an ever expanding organization that can connect Black entrepreneurs who guide business endeavors that range from budding to burgeoning, resulting in a network that strengthens their individual and collective efforts.

Carter sees benefits for everyone involved. “Entrepreneurs can infuse new ideas, energy, and technology into their ventures by working with young people,” he says. “Most importantly, these students learn that it is possible for them to be successful. And that may be a lesson that isn’t necessarily learned anywhere but in a collaborative university-community exchange of knowledge.”

Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
Reprinted with permission from the March 2013 issue of The Engaged Scholar E-Newsletter