By Camisha Jones
On Tuesday, September 18, 2012, Charlottesville experienced its first annual Minority Business Conference sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce’s newly organized Minority Business Council. The conference attracted almost 140 business owners and entrepreneurs – people who have been in business for 10 or more years as well as people who have yet to start a business. Expecting that bringing representatives of minority businesses together into one space to network and learn would be a catalyst for strengthening the minority business community, the conference theme was “Business Empowerment Through Connections.”
“Access and education is what this conference is about” said Bernard Whitsett, II, Chairman of the Chamber Minority Business Council (CMBC). “We are focused and committed to business empowerment with the goal of cultivating small business and entrepreneurial economic activity in our Charlottesville region.” Launched in January 2012 as an outgrowth of the city’s Dialogue on Race and a report on poverty in Charlottesville titled, the “Orange Dot Project,” the CMBC has at its core a desire to spark positive change. Andrea Copeland, Director of Member Education Services for Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and Chamber Liaison to the CMBC, says the CMBC was created in response to “the lack of minority-owned businesses in the area as well as the lack of support and resources for those already in existence.” This conference is part of the CMBC’s effort to address those realities.
Underwritten by Allison Partners, a woman-owned organizational development consulting firm, and the City of Charlottesville’s Dialogue on Race, the daylong conference featured a keynote speaker, breakout sessions, an interactive networking session, exhibitors, and an elevator pitch event. Breakout sessions at the conference covered such topics as starting a business, securing funding and government contracts, using social media, and building a successful business.
The conference began with a keynote address given by Jerry Bias, owner of Sugarleaf Vineyards in North Garden, Virginia. A product of a single parent family that once depended on public assistance, Bias is a graduate of University of Virginia who spent over 20 years working on Wall Street. When Sugarleaf Vineyards was established in 2002, it made history as the only African-American owned vineyard and winery on the East Coast. The vineyard’s wines have been served at the White House.
As part of his speech, Bias shared what inspired him to create Sugarleaf. He explained that his grandfather lost ownership of a farm that had been in their family for about 60 years, because he couldn’t pay a $1400 tax bill. When Bias had the opportunity to replace that loss, he grabbed hold of it by purchasing the 126 acre vineyard where he planted the first 300 vines himself. Founding Sugarleaf was also a way for him to honor a friend who perished in the 9-11 attacks.
Bias told conference attendees, “Work towards making your product excellent because excellence is colorless,” Detailing seven tips on which to build excellence, he emphasized the importance of 1) identifying what moves you; 2) treating people well; 3) teaching; 4) doing something for someone besides yourself; 5) trusting your instincts; 6) being diligent; and 7) appreciating the time you have on earth. He encouraged the crowd to consider their connection to those who came before them, stating, “It is my…belief in life that if I do not reach my potential then I have not only failed me but all those before me who have sacrificed so much and have laid the brick for every step along my path. Simply put, it’s bigger than me.”
Bias was not the only one to share his story and wisdom at the conference. During the elevator pitch contest, for instance, 14 conference participants had 2 minutes to tell a panel of judges about their business or a business idea for which they desired support. The four winners received prize packages to help advertise and brand their business.
One of the participants in the contest was Susan Chambers. “I make something out of nothing all the time cause I’m coming from nothing,” Chambers told the judges and the listening crowd. She explained how she once lived in public housing and had no high school diploma. Now, she has a 2 year degree in criminal justice and a level of employment that allowed her to purchase a home for her family. Chambers says her next big step is business ownership. While she did not win the pitch contest, she left thankful to have met people who can help her in her pursuit of opening a Jamaican restaurant in Charlottesville.
First prize winner Erin Davis plans to open a skate park that will include roller skating, an indoor playground, inflatables and a snack bar. “I just want to have something for my kid to do, (for) his friends to do, and (for) friends of his friends (to do)…I just want more recreational variety in Charlottesville.” Reflecting on her experience at the conference, Davis states “I’m leaving happy, knowing that I can network. I came here petrified and nervous and (I’m leaving) with a bag full of contacts…I’m excited about that because the more I do it, the better I’ll get at it.”
Members of the CMBC feel good about the conference. Ty Cooper, owner of LifeView Marketing LLC and Membership Chairperson of the CMBC, states, “It was great. It was well organized. The content was good.” Chef Ralph Brown Sr, President of RBC Institute, a faith-based community learning center that offers food service training, believes the conference showed that people of color can work collaboratively, explaining, “This is a demonstration that we’re not living in the past and we can work together to get something done.” Andrea Copeland said many attendees were thankful for the opportunity to network with one another and for the information they received on how to take their business to the next level. She was especially pleased to hear about one person who secured consulting work at the conference, stating, “That’s what it’s all about: Business Empowerment Through Connections.”