Southern Maryland Black Chamber of Commerce forms to help business owners

A new business group targeting African Americans will encompass all of Southern Maryland, but focus on Charles County. The Southern Maryland Black Chamber of Commerce, which will have its first formal meeting this month, aims to provide educational and networking opportunities chiefly, but not solely, to black entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners, the group’s leaders said June 11.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Why do we need a black chamber?’ My bottom line is simple. We need an organization that is providing services specific to what their needs are,” said Doris J. Cammack Spencer, president and chief executive of the new group, as well as chairman of the Southern Maryland Consortium of African American Community Organizations, a coalition that includes local NAACP chapters and other groups.

Those needs include social and educational events often provided by other business groups, but at which black members might have felt unwanted, Spencer said.

“That’s what we’re trying to address. To be honest with you, they don’t feel comfortable in these organizations. They don’t feel welcome. As I’ve also said, the cost to become a member is exorbitant, especially for minority companies,” Spencer said.

Creating a black chamber made sense as more black people, including professionals, move into Charles, said Janice Wilson, chairman of the board of the black chamber and the president of the Charles County chapter of the NAACP.

Charles’s black population, including people of mixed race with black ancestry, increased 31 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In 2010, an estimated 63,847 African Americans lived in the county.

“Because of the increased numbers of minorities moving into Charles, especially, we felt we needed to create a black chamber to serve the needs of that population,” Wilson said. “One of the primary goals of the black chamber is to bring awareness to the minority business community of opportunities and to create networking opportunities for black businesses.”

Among the ideas under discussion are workshops to teach people how to run for local political offices and to help minority-owned businesses learn how to work with governments under programs that set contracts aside for businesses that are considered disadvantaged, Wilson said.

Teaching entrepreneurship to the young could be another goal, she said.

“Our young people need our help,” Wilson said. “They seem to be disconnected, in terms of their education, maybe finishing high school but not heading toward anything. We’re hoping to offer some workshops . . . to help that population navigate their way through life.”

The Southern Maryland group is in “its very embryonic stages,” said Charles DeBow, vice president of special projects for the National Black Chamber of Commerce, based in Washington, D.C.

The Southern Maryland Black Chamber has not joined the national group, although its leaders are considering it and will attend a training next month, Wilson said. National membership carries benefits including guidance in sustaining a local chamber, DeBow said.

“The easy, quick thing is that we’ve got a template for the best practices and procedures for starting a chamber and operating a chamber, and how to avoid many of the pitfalls that are the things that cause a chamber to become dysfunctional,” he said. “It’s very easy to start a chamber. It is extremely difficult to sustain it for one year, two years, five years.”

Among the traps that can ensnare new groups are “being too introspective,” or focusing on the special interests of dominant members. Another is duplicating too closely the efforts of other groups, DeBow said.

“You can easily tell a lot about a chamber by the diversity of the types of businesses and the types of activities that are being conducted,” DeBow said.

Eric Franklin, chairman of the Southern Maryland Workforce Investment Board and the owner of a tech company, said he supports the black chamber’s mission but has not decided whether to join.

“I think it’s important that people give this organization an opportunity to prove their worth and value to the community,” Franklin said.

Annual dues are $50 for individuals and $25 for full-time high school or post-secondary students, Wilson said. Business memberships are assessed on a sliding scale: $100 for those with 10 or fewer employees; $150, between 11 and 25; $350, between 26 and 50; and $750 for businesses with more than 50 workers. Nonprofit memberships cost $100.

The first meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. June 28 at the Hilton Garden Inn, 10385 O’Donnell Place, Waldorf. Call 410-257-9599 or e-mail for information.

 
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