Statistics show a rise in black entrepreneurship, but the numbers hide the sobering fact that many African American MBAs started their own businesses because employers didn’t promote them fast enough. Pro or con?
Passed Over and Alienated
by Barbara L. Thomas, National Black MBA Assn.
When the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year a remarkable jump in African Americans’ entrepreneurial activity, it sounded like good news. Striking out on one’s own is an all-American dream. How exciting to see it come true in such numbers!
On reflection, however, the question arises: What’s really behind all these new businesses? Enterprise is a fine thing, but what could cause a 45% jump in the number of black-owned businesses in just five years? One answer, I regretfully submit, is unfortunate yet undeniable: African Americans too often do not receive the support they need to succeed in the corporate world.
To offer only one example, consider the news that chilled New York City’s enormous advertising industry just as the Census Bureau was reporting the rise in African American entrepreneurship. The city’s Human Rights Commission threatened major firms with sanctions because the industry’s woeful record in hiring and promoting African Americans had scarcely improved in the 30 years since the commission last looked.
Thirty years. That’s an awfully long time to be unable to find good minority candidates.
So let’s admit it: Many African Americans take the entrepreneurial route at least in part because, for them, the corporate ladder is missing some rungs. They may be successful on their own, and they may be happy—but it won’t be because Corporate America tried so hard to keep them.
As president of the National Black MBA Assn., I am privileged to work with corporations trying to improve the diversity of their workforces. I believe, absolutely, that they want to do the right thing. I know solutions are coming, because we’re creating them, for our corporate allies as well as our individual members.
And I’m optimistic. I won’t deny for a moment the problems we still face in making sure African Americans get the opportunities they deserve. But I’ve seen such change, just in my own lifetime, that I never doubt the even greater progress that lies ahead.
A Step Forward, Not a Retreat
By BW.com Staff
Frustration with the MBA’s sluggish return on investment in Corporate America knows no race. Right here in the Debate Room, dozens of readers—presumably from all demographic groups—expressed dismay with the degree’s failure to produce enough upward mobility to merit the two years and $90,000 tuition it requires (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/16/07, “MBA: A Mere Option?”).
Perhaps the number of black MBAs who have traded the executive suite for entrepreneurship is disproportionately high. But why cast it in a negative light? Couldn’t it simply mean more of the businesspeople in this ethnic group had enough gumption to say: “I’m tired of sitting in endless meetings and going through seven layers of management to get a simple yes or no. I don’t want to wait two years for a promotion. Let me create my own enterprise and do things my way.”
African American entrepreneurship has long had a profound effect on U.S. culture. Ever hear of Berry Gordy or Oprah Winfrey?
And again, entrepreneurship in general doesn’t deserve any disparaging spin. Striking out on one’s own takes more talent than coasting along at a giant corporation. The George Costanza strategy of “walking fast and looking worried” doesn’t cut it when you’re your own boss. An entrepreneur needs to raise startup funds, secure office space, and devise a public relations strategy—without the support structure available to gargantuan corporations. Those who choose the role of general contractor of their own businesses are to be applauded for their hands-on leadership.
And the fact is, entrepreneurship has always served as a ticket to success for up-and-coming ethnic groups. The individuality, bravado, and originality of these pioneers have helped make the U.S. an economic superpower. Sure, American corporate giants have the muscle to do big business around the planet. Thanks to globalization, the Internet, and free trade, entrepreneurs of all extractions can contribute to U.S. strength in the world economy, too.