The Madison Black Chamber of Commerce’s Black Business Resiliency Showcase: Weathering the Storm Together

CamilleCarter

Madison Black Chamber of Commerce CEO in the chamber’s offices on S. Park Street where she has assisted her Chamber members in accessing resources to help them through the pandemic

By Jonathan Gramling

In March 2020, the Madison Chamber of Commerce had a lot of momentum going its way. It had just held a successful gala and has secured some funding commitments. It was gaining memberships and had recently rented storefront office space on S. Park Street. And Camille Carter had become a full-time CEO with a mission to expand the financial base and services of the Chamber.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and like many businesses, it had to struggle to hold onto what it had.

“March came and things didn’t seem to be optimistic as the news kept reporting about this pandemic,” Carter said. “People were getting very ill. It seemed that everything was going in slow motion. And then the next thing we knew, we closed our doors and no one showed up to our office spaces. And the phones stopped ringing. And then we really went into the pandemic coronavirus mode.”

The Chamber’s businesses were looking to it for leadership and during the beginning stages of th4e pandemic, it was often a listening ear that the Chamber offered.

“A lot of those needs were psychological needs,” Carter said. “They needed someone to hear them. They needed someone to understand that they were given some change points and they were scared.”

The Black Chamber was also pulled into a larger stage in the Madison area where the overall needs of businesses were being discussed.

“We were called into a larger community collective, which was the city of Madison, Dane County and the state,” Carter recalled. “We were called to very high-level conversations to stand up as leaders and to assemble to help and be an organization that was really able to handle not only emotionally what businesses were about to go through, but also how to communicate information cohesively across the board. It was a very, very demanding period of time.”

And while the Chamber fields information and requests as individual business face challenges or move to the next stage in their business development, the sudden shifts brought on by the pandemic meant that the Chamber was dealing with an overwhelming amount of need, especially since Carter was the only full-time staff member.

“We were in meetings quite a bit just making sure that we had information,” Carter said. “We were learning ourselves as we went along. And there were grants and emergency stimulation funding. We had to figure out how to organize and get aid out to businesses and families just to keep everything at bay. We helped people to adjust to this new reality. We made calls and fielded in-bound calls. We made sure that we got communication out there about opportunities for businesses to get assistance and information. It was a very heavy lift on our small chamber.”

The Chamber also had to deal with the fact that many of its members didn’t fall within the guidelines of PPP and other federal programs even though their need was just as great or greater.

“We had a lot of businesses fill out grant applications, but when it came to the PPP and other federal funding opportunities like the EIDL through a traditional model, a lot of our businesses were caught off guard because they weren’t financially prepared with taxes,” Carter said. “A lot of our businesses are sole proprietors. What did that mean for them when PPP is for employees? There was just so much confusion. There was a lack of morale when you are desperately trying to not just keep your business open, but also sustain your family and making sure that you have some outlook or projections to rebound. When that did not happen quickly, it was obviously a very tenuous time.”

And then there was the uncertainty that businesses faced.

“Everyone wants to know the outcome,” Carter emphasized. “When is this going to end? As entrepreneurs, we base our health on projections, being able to identify quarter over quarter. Some quarters, you plan your business because it is a high season for you or it is graduation season and you know how to predict you ad income or your travel income. A lot of our businesses are connected with the hospitality industry. And that completely shut down. I recall having a conversation with a business who was in tears because they had to lay off 70 employees. They had to fire them. That was a very hard conversation for myself and certainly for the business. He wasn’t worried about his business. I’m sure he was concerned, but his primary concern was his employees. He really felt accountable for taking care of those families. And that was a very emotional journey for him to not be able to stand up for the families that he represented.”

In spite of everything going on around them, the entrepreneurs who survived and thrived kept their eye on the prize on economic success and what it takes to attain it.

“It would have been too overwhelming for businesses if they paid attention to the macro,” Carter said. “When you focused on the macro, it was like the sky was falling. If you focused on the big sky where everyone was running around wondering when they were going to get hit — if you are focused on that level — then you really won’t be able to focus on the next step. You really do have to have blinders on. You have to incubate yourself. And then you have to be extremely laser-focused.”

And yet together, the Chamber and a great majority of its members have survived the pandemic and some have even thrived and succeeded during it. And so on Thursday May 6 from 4-6 p.m., the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce will be hosting its annual gala virtually. It is called the Black Business Resiliency Showcase. And while there has been a lot of negativity going on this past year, the Chamber wants to highlight some of the positive things that Black businesses have done to weather and succeed during the pandemic.

“We really want to showcase resiliency personified,” Carter said. “We want to show what that looks like and to be able to shine a light on that. We’ve had so many unfortunate statistics that we have understood this last year with Black Lives Matter, the racial and wealth inequality gaps, the over-policing of African Americans, and the statistics about African American businesses not being able to quality for funding. We’ve had a lot of negativity that we can really do without. And so we really want to look at the upside. We’ve identified some very talented entrepreneurs and we will showcase them this year. They are in various industries. They were selected by their peers. We have a really nice slate of businesses to highlight and focus on.”

And in order to showcase that Black businesses can be highly successful, the keynote speaker for the night is Ms. Loida Nicolas Lewis, the widow of Reginald F. Lewis who was the first African American to build his business into a billion dollar operation.

“We will be highlighting his life,” Carter said. “We really get to see that we can have fun. The book is ‘Why Should White Guys Have All of the Fun.’ It’s his autobiography on how he created his billion dollar enterprise. Our ticket holders will get a copy of the book as well.”

Also on tap will be Justin Fields who was appointed to be the CEO of the regional economic development organization MadRep.

“We’re excited about having him back at our podium,” Carter said. “Jason was our keynote speaker when he was a state legislator at our first awards program four years ago. We’re excited to have him at the podium to give us an economic outlook and projections for our region. We are very excited about the program.”

As our interview came to an end, Carter reflected on the lessons learned over the past year during the height of the pandemic.

“We know something has occurred, a shift in our economy, a shift in our community and we ourselves have shifted,” Carter observed. “And so we are relearning as we settle into a new normal. It is different. Remain optimistic. Study the economy and the monetary system and not get overly relaxed in the go forward agenda. Just be very calculated on how you make decisions, how you invest in resources and your time. Of course, learn how to value family and friendships. Those are essential to our own private and public health. And really just be inspired about the community. If we maintain our civility and our humanness, we will really have some great power. We will find great power as a collective. And so I am inspired by that. I caution opening up too fast and getting back to normal. It’s a new era. In that, I would just remain cautiously optimistic. If this pandemic has taught us anything, we don’t know what is around the corner and you have to plan for the ‘what ifs.’ Scale back to scale up.”

As a business community, the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce and its members have weathered this storm together.

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