Thanks to Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, people are talking about the economic insecurity that so many Americans are experiencing. To be sure, Buchanan is not the first to discuss the plight of the people Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls “anxious Americans,” but his hard-hitting attack on corporations that have downsized millions of workers out of jobs is hardly what one expects from a Republican candidate — even a seemingly populist one.
Buchanan may have the right message, but he is the wrong messenger. While he describes the problem well, he offers few solutions. Instead, his shortsighted scapegoating pits “us” against “them.” and his tailoring of his message to the white middle class ignores the fact that the poor have also been affected by downsizing.
There are two approaches that can be implemented to make sure that workers survive the current climate. Responsible companies that maintain sizable payrolls and hire more full-time than part-time workers should be rewarded through the tax system. And, secondly, if large companies are laying people off, government should do what it can to assist small and medium-sized businesses in their growth and development.
For many, especially women and people of color, business ownership provides an alternative to climbing the corporate ladder. The number of businesses owned by African Americans grew by more than 60 percent between 1987 and 1992. The number of women-owned businesses almost doubled in the same five-year period, while the receipts from these businesses more than doubled. Indeed, the 6.4 million women-owned businesses in the United States employed more than 13 million people and generated $1.6 trillion in revenues. These businesses employed more people than did the “Fortune 500” companies!
While recently released data do not track the number of businesses owned by African-American women, our history shows that many excelled as entrepreneurs. The story of the beauty empire that Madam C. J. Walker built is a tribute to the ingenuity, tenacity and acumen that is typical of most African-American women business owners. The entrepreneurial descendants of Madam Walker now own businesses in construction, broadcasting, wholesale and retail sales — and virtually every other category of enterprise.
Today’s entrepreneurs, armed with undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration, are better educated than their foremothers. One might ask if their book learning is a substitute for the mother wit that women like Madam Walker exercised to make her business a success. The competitiveness of these times suggests that education, alone, does not produce a winning business. Intuition, the ability to take risks and mother wit all combine to make winners out of would-be entrepreneurs. I make this statement not to disparage education but to remind us of the richness Of African-American women’s entrepreneurial history, and to suggest that we examine the many ways our foremothers built businesses with fewer resources (and less education) than many of us have now.
As large companies continue to downsize, African-American entrepreneurship will become more critical in providing for the economic needs of African-American people. Yet only 342 of the more than 600,000 Black-owned businesses had more than 100 employees! Most are mom-and-pop operations with few, if any, outside employees. Many have government as primary clients. To be sure, many have had to clear obstacles in finding loans, bonding, or other financial resources. Some have experienced discrimination in contracting and lending. The times dictate that, despite these obstacles, African-American entrepreneurship is to be encouraged both for the sake of community development and developing employment.
Consider some of the contemporary African-American women entrepreneurs who have followed in the footsteps of Madam C. J. Walker. In Washington, DC, Cathy Hughes has built a multimillion-dollar radio empire. In Philadelphia, Emma Chapell has built a bank from the ground up. In Springfield, MA, Carol Aranjo heads a credit union and has developed entrepreneurial programs for youth. In Los Angeles. Denise Pines has started a fledgling publishing company — Pines One. These women represent the tip of an iceberg. They also represent the future, and the silver lining in the cloud of corporate downsizing.
The bleak world according to Buchanan can be brightened by remembering the triumph of Madam Walker. She began her business by peddling hair products from door to door, but eventually she headed an empire that employed hundreds of people as manufacturers and sales agents. This is part of the history that we must celebrate during Women’s History Month — the history of entrepreneurial success that remains a model for African-American women business owners.
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