Making Change: Minorities In (and Out) of Business

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Joe Lopez and Roxanne Quezada Chartouni represent the far sides of a continuum of minority entrepreneurship in the region. Lopez's commercial/industrial construction business - New Era Builders - is growing so fast, it captured the number 2 spot on this past year's Weatherhead 100, a list of the fastest-growing local companies. But Chartouni's photography business, Big Brown Eyes Productions, has stalled - and not for lack of talent. Chartouni has had numerous shows of her work and captured large-scale contracts with the city of Cleveland. But not lately.

Roxanne Quezada Chartouni: I've cold-called ad firms, design firms; networked. You get the call; you don't get the call back. You give them your card, you do your little spiel, but you never hear from them again. And when you touch base again with them, it's like you never existed.

So, Chartouni is packing up and moving back to California, where she has several projects already in the works. Chartouni doesn't believe in giving up, she says, but she wonders if she's been laboring here with a triple deficit.

Roxanne Quezada Chartouni: I'm an outsider on three levels. I'm a woman, I'm hispanic, and I'm not from here.

Joe Lopez says such barriers are real.

Joe Lopez: They say, 'Well we haven't used a hispanic firm to paint our buildings, why should we do it now?' The mind set is that they don't have track record, there's no success stories there. So it's like, out of sight, out of mind.

But whatever barriers exist, Lopez has blasted through them. He's grown his business substantially over the past 16 years (last year's growth rate was well over 700 percent). How? He says by doing exemplary work, and never overselling or underperforming. Despite his success, Lopez says he still struggles to, as he puts it, take his seat at the table. It's a shame, he says, in part because his firm and other minority businesses are sticking around, while many white-owned companies flee the city and region.

Joe Lopez: We're the growth of Cleveland, and we are the business of Cleveland, the small businesses. The majority guys are leaving.

There's widespread acknowledgement that minority businesses are vital to the region's economic health. Stacey Banks-Houston runs the Greater Cleveland Urban League's Multicultural Small Business Development Center, which serves Cuyahoga County. The SBDC has helped 13 businesses get off the ground since the beginning of the year. She says money continues to be a huge barrier to entrepreneurship, but so is attitude. Prospective entrepreneurs, she says, tend to think no further than their first venture.

Stacey Banks-Houston: 'If I can just get this up and running, then I'm okay, then I'll think about the next one.' Instead of saying, 'My goal is to open five, and then this is the gameplan for how I'm gonna open the five.'

Banks-Houston says small thinking is a universal tendency. But a report out this summer has found minorities are less likely than their white counterparts to believe in themselves. Jim Lowry is senior vice president of the Boston Consulting Group and author of The New Agenda for Minority Business Development.

Jim Lowry: I want to be diplomatic in saying this, but for so many years people of color didn't believe they could be businesspeople.

Why? Kent State political science professor Bessie House, who runs KSU's Center for the Study and Development of Minority Businesses, says there's a lot of history behind some people's fatalism.

Dr. Bessie House: The encounters that people had from 1600 onward with regard to the plantation economy in the South, the institution of slavery, and the programming that minorities have gotten historically that they cannot achieve.

But you can't allow fear of failure to stop you, she says.

Dr. Bessie House: You have to be willing to take a risk. Nobody else may believe that you can succeed. But you gotta believe it yourself and you gotta stay true to yourself and keep going. You'll get No's and No's and No's, but you gotta hang in there and really have self-confidence that this thing can happen.

Lowry, who has studied minority entrepreneurship since the 70s, says minorities need to do more than overcome their fears. They need to seek partnerships, choose growth industries, and keep looking for new challenges, he says.

Jim Lowry: So the whole idea is that you don't want to stay in the same place, although it might be comfortable. But if you think in terms of 3- to-5 years out, to creating wealth, you can use your profit from one business and invest in other businesses.

The key for the region, of course, is for that to happen here. In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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