Commentary | The Best of Times and … Education Centers: The epicenter for African-American business prospects

By Dr. Charles Moses

Our communities face challenges, and enormous possibilities, as we move through the second decade of the new millennium. The next great business idea can be dreamed up on a napkin while waiting for your entrée at your favorite restaurant. If the idea is compelling — and potentially profitable — capital for its development can flow in ways heretofore thought impossible.

Yet, access remains a challenge. In October, representatives from 15 historically black colleges and universities attended an Innovation Summit at Stanford University. The aim of the gathering was to reposition HBCUs as catalysts for technological innovation. Stanford enjoys a symbiotic relationship with Silicon Valley: students are encouraged to take creative risks in developing business ideas and then have access to nearby university related networks for capital and other support. Success allows many to base their businesses in the area, hire students from their alma mater and — when they die — leave their substantial estates to the institution that made their success possible. These relationships are often characterized as “ecosystems.”

Atlanta will likely not rival Silicon Valley as a major technology hub. Yet it has strengths which can be similarly developed. Business programs within HBCUs aim to play a catalyzing role in promoting technological change and innovation in the community. This has significant implications for what is taught: mindful that many of the jobs and businesses in which our students will participate in a decade from now do not exist today, we are adapting a rigorously future-oriented view as to their coursework. And rather than have students pursue a highly delineated academic program, programs are being developed which blend interdisciplinary studies with electives to give students more opportunities to cultivate their passions and to innovate. Academic programs like Sports and Entertainment Management, Entrepreneurship and Financial Planning are areas of great promise.

Members of emerging groups of U.S. business owners, many of whom are members of immigrant groups, will understand the workings of informal systems. Entrepreneurship is not just about creating an idea, sending it to market, and extracting profits. Communities with robust business cultures derive other benefits, among them a sense of reciprocity — the sense that I will get value for value when I spend. Another benefit is the sense of accountability; the sense that the person or firm with whom I am spending will stand behind their product or service. Transactions with these qualities become self-actualizing: the more we do, the more we will want to do. In another sense, the stock market is a high-level chronicler of an infinite number of financial transactions. Transactions are always valuable to someone. In communities which are relatively weak, the non-economic, self-actualizing benefits of transactions accrue to outsiders. Strong communities derive significant non-economic benefits from the economic transactions generated within.

Institutions — schools, community organizations and banks have a role to play in easing the path from concept to reality. Yet, as is the case elsewhere, we understand that not every idea will be a winner, hence the need for what the investor community calls “deal flow;” a steady stream of innovations coming from the broadest range of sources.

In 1899, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois published an article entitled “The Negro in Business” while a professor at Atlanta University (Clark Atlanta University is a consolidation of Atlanta University and Clark College). Dr. DuBois was trying to understand the breadth and depth of African-American owned businesses at the time. In 2014, we view his work as the intellectual context in which we operate. The African-American business community of the future will be both place- and cloud-based. It will be more muscular. Businesses will survive beyond the lifetime of the founder. Founders and owners will be better trained and thus better able to steer their businesses through changes in the economy. The business forms will be more complex and better financed. Linkages between our businesses and those elsewhere will become routine. We will also have a more robust “flow” of new businesses which will replace the old. Business is values laden and it tends to be self-actualizing. If we see ourselves as viable economic entities, and we act so, so it will become. AT

— Dr. Moses is the interim dean of the Clark Atlanta University School of Business Administration.

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