Business leader panel discusses barriers facing Black-owned businesses

Racial disparities in business ownership and entrepreneurship pose unique challenges.

But that doesn’t mean Black business owners can’t reach their full potential, speakers told “The Business of Metro MKE,” a virtual series presented by the MMAC centered on issues shaping the region’s health and economy.

“Be careful who you listen to. Obviously, follow your dream, but make sure you are getting counsel from people who have been down that road,” said James Phelps, president of JCP Construction. “That’s not to say you [shouldn’t] listen to those who have not put skin in the game, but I would weigh that a little bit less than those who have fought the battles needed to be a small business owner.”

Other speakers echoed this need to connect with informed and experienced individuals. Ugo Nwagbaraocha, president and owner of Diamond Discs International, stepped in to remind the panel that while personal relationships are key, both to getting a foot in the door and for guidance, some people may not always be receptive to your goals.

“Sometimes people have good intentions, but they’ve never seen excellence,” he concluded. “Don’t let someone’s ignorance to Black excellence hinder your ability to achieve Black success. Don’t let anyone define or put you in a hole as far as what the limitations of your success can be.” 

Carla Cross, president and CEO of Cross Management Services, noted that a lack of diversity among business owners may be partially due to young adults of color not being aware that business and entrepreneurship are valid career options. 

“The more that we can do to expose young individuals to the fact there are business people in Milwaukee — that you can own a manufacturing business, a sales business, a construction business — and that there are opportunities out there for them, I think that will help quite a bit.” 

Phelps offered a final piece of advice to individuals trying to start a business.

“Open doors to relationships with others around you. It’s about who you know, essentially,” he said. “It’s about mentorship, identifying people you see that have that potential, that are in the industry.”

-By Addison Lathers