To the dismay of a colleague who recently moved to Washington, only seven companies in this area produced revenues great enough last year to qualify as one of Black Enterprise magazine's Top 100 black-owned firms.
He had assumed that, because Washington's population is predominantly black and because the area's income and education levels are among the highest in the nation, more black-owned companies here would make BE's Top 100.
Actually, with seven companies on this year's BE Top 100 list (four financial institutions are listed in a separate category), metropolitan Washington compares favorably with other major population centers.
Although no Washington area company is ranked among the top 10 sales leaders, four of the six computer services and electronic data firms listed by BE are situated here.
In a comparison of assets of financial institutions, two District banks rank fifth and eighth among the 44 listed by BE. Moreover, the nation's fourth-largest black-owned savings and loan association, with assets of $78 million, is situated in the District.
In fact, only New York has more companies than Washington in this year's Top 100. Moreover, the list is dominated by auto dealerships, which account for 25 percent of the largest black-owned firms.
Although the raw sales figures show significant growth for individual firms, little has changed in the slow development of black enterprise as a major business sector. And factors that historically have limited the development and expansion of black businesses are as prevalent here as elsewhere.
Black Enterprise's Top 100 list in the publication's June issue is as much a symbol of the lack of real growth as it is a recognition of achievement.
Despite sales exceeding $104 million, Motown Industries, ranked No. 1 in BE's Top 100, is really a small company compared with major U.S. corporations. The smallest company on the Fortune 500 list reported sales of more than $423 million in 1982.
Indeed, sales of the top black businesses in the United States were just over $2 billion last year, BE reports.
And while BE suggests that this year's Top 100 "are laying the groundwork for expanded black economic activity," problems associated with operating outside the mainstream of American business aren't likely to be resolved soon.
Indeed, while citing "significant new milestones" reached by the Top 100 last year, BE publisher Earl Graves acknowledges that, historically, "We have not had access to the capital of the financial institutions to use for growth and expansion."
Minority business owners have made the same complaint for years. A study conducted over several years by business leaders in Baltimore confirmed as much. And prodded by those executives who call themselves the Greater Baltimore Committee, six of Maryland's largest banks recently formed a nonprofit corporation that will provide low-interest, long-term loans to minority firms.
If similar programs are adopted in other cities, BE's hope for laying the groundwork for expanded black economic activity may be realized sooner than expected. But access to capital is only one factor that has stood in the way of black business development.
One of the greatest handicaps for black business owners "has been their isolation from the mainstream," says G. Franklin Edwards, professor of sociology at Howard University.
"That has been as much a handicap as a lack of capital, but fortunately some of this is changing," Edwards says.
Edwards also cites a lack of access to knowledge and techniques in the business community as contributing to the relative slow development of black business. But with greater access and more opportunities for forming limited parnerships and making other types of investments, "We are only beginning to see a breakthrough," he notes.
But having been out of the mainstream of American business for so long, blacks will have to learn to cope with its monopolistic structure, suggests Frank G. Davis, professor of economics at Howard.
"There is a tendency of monopolistic control to freeze out newcomers," says Davis. "In some cases, newcomers can't even get control of basic resources."
He contends that the key to significant growth for black businesses is the ability to develop the right structure. "You have got to have corporate structures that will allow you to create large capital resources," he says.
In the absence of that, "it doesn't matter whether you are black, white or green," Davis maintains. "You are stuck with running a small business."