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Sidelined by the City

Off Campus | March 3, 2014

Obstacles for Boston’s minority business owners

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a salt-of-the-earth son of Dorchester, has put a special emphasis on neglected neighborhoods and diversity in city government. For the first time in Boston’s history, the new mayor has appointed people of color to fill half of the cabinet and police command staff positions. But now, in the seventh week of his term, the press is already critiquing Walsh’s approach to diversity in city government. For many in this city – especially for minority business owners – Walsh’s efforts aren’t enough.

At a forum examining the city’s approach to minority-owned businesses at the Boston Convention Center on February 17, which drew the new US Senator from Massachusetts, Ed Markey,  Mayor Walsh affirmed his commitment to building an administration that reflects the diversity of Boston. But Walsh admitted he hasn’t yet met his diversity goals in terms of hiring and assigning government contracts.

“The solution must start by setting the bar high in City Hall,” Walsh told the crowd of about 200, which included minority business owners and city officials. “With your help, we will make Boston a place where everyone can climb the ladder of success.”

George Richardson, 65, a retired city employee who attended the forum, and ran a business called Genesis Transportation in the late 1980s, is hopeful for the new mayor, but wary of the legacy of a Boston political machine that he feels ran him out of business.

“The idea is excellent,” Richardson said of the mayor’s proposals. “But we have to understand we’re in the Boston machine mentality.”

Like many black business owners, Richardson said he had to close his business in 1990 because banks wouldn’t give him the credit he needed. Despite Richardson’s years of experience, he said, “they didn’t want to take the risk.”

Richardson employed 35 people, running the business in his spare time while working full-time for the city of Boston. Richardson recalled changing tires on the Genesis bus fleet in the street at 1 a.m., once knocking himself out with a heavy wrench as he changed a tire.

“It was a lot of work, but it left a lot of people satisfied,” Richardson said.

Senator Markey spoke on the history of race relations in Boston, encouraging the city government to rise to the example of progressive forbears like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison— a reference that sparked a strong round of applause. He set goals to give minority-owned businesses equal access to capital, to build an educational workforce for small businesses, and to keep minority college students in Boston after they graduate.

James Cater, 36, who works for the city of Boston and attended the forum, said he once considered moving out of Boston because of a lack of opportunities. “If this city isn’t minority-friendly,” he said, “then you move out, there’s no choice.”

Markey’s survey of the history of race relations in Boston seemed to ring hollow with some of the other panelists, including Beth Williams, owner of Roxbury Technology, a printer cartridge manufacturer, and State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, who focused on using diversity statistics to hold the arbiters of government contracts accountable.

Cater agreed with Senator Dorcena Forry’s emphasis on statistics. “There has been a lack of progress compared to other major cities which have mandates,” Cater said. We need to really be putting some numbers behind it.”

Williams, one of the most prominent black business owners in Boston, spoke of the challenges she has faced dealing with banks and city government, mirroring Richardson’s experiences. “I have to show my mortgage to get certified,” she said. “My taxes aren’t enough. In the ten years that I’ve been a business owner in Boston, I’ve never received a government contract.”

Steven S. Rodgers, a Harvard Business School professor, and according to Williams, “one of the founders of teaching black entrepreneurship” told the audience, “Minority businesses have been ghettoized that they’re all small businesses.”

Another prominent black business owner, Richard Taylor, said, “There are no black CEOs in this town.” Taylor, who is chairman of the Taylor-Smith Companies, a real estate firm, outlined a plan to demand capital from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Mayor Walsh’s officials at the forum outlined large building projects that would employ much construction labor—a 1,500-room hotel in the “Innovation District” and a plan to turn the area into the “21st Century Back Bay.” Walsh mentioned only briefly the prospects for bringing businesses not only into the wealthy districts of the city but also into the cash-strapped neighborhoods of Mattapan and Dorchester, where he lives.

Walsh left with Senator Markey before the panel discussion began.

“You don’t judge the success of a mayor in his first seven weeks,” Walsh told the Boston Globe after the forum.

While many minority business owners have confidence in the new administration, Richardson has some doubts about whether Walsh will be able to dismantle the political machine Mayor Menino built over his 20 years in office. Richardson’s plans are not as grand as the mayor’s. Though he’s now retired, Richardson is planning to collaborate with Boston civic groups to empower black business owners. Richardson said he wanted “to keep them from making the same mistakes I did.”

“Minority businesses aren’t going to be million-dollar businesses,” Richardson said. “It’s not about the bottom line for us.”