President Obama

'America got a cold and black businesses got pneumonia'

April 3, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Harry Alford, CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, talks about encouraging black-owned businesses -- and why he thinks Paul Ryan is right about inner-city culture.

By Brandon Southward

FORTUNE -- Harry Alford is a longtime champion of black-owned businesses owners. A veteran of corporations such as Procter & Gamble (PG) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Alford about two decades ago dedicated himself to expanding opportunities for black entrepreneurs. Like many advocates for small to medium-sized businesses, he offers a passionate argument against excessive government regulation -- and an endorsement of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) recent remarks on inner cities and the culture and value of work.

Fortune: When did you launch the National Black Chamber of Commerce?

Alford: It was launched May 23, 1993. My wife and I launched it after a successful launching of a local black chamber in Indianapolis. It caught the attention of people from around the nation and it occurred to us that a national black chamber was needed.

 So, what is the state of African Americans in the business world?

There is a positive trend. Black business owners are the fastest-growing segment for business ownership. We grew at a rate of 60% from 2002-2007 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and there about 1.9 million businesses currently owned by African Americans in the U.S. That's about 7.3% of all small businesses, which is small but progress is being made.

What would you say are the biggest impediments to African Americans becoming business owners?

You know it's the normal stuff that holds back more people from becoming business owners like capital access, cronyism by existing businesses, and a lack of technical assistance. And this isn't an impediment, but we also did get harder than most during the recession. America got a cold and black businesses got pneumonia.

Can more be done to inspire or encourage more African Americans to become business owners?

The need for job creation in African American communities. There is a calling for those who dare to take risks for the sake of future rewards. There has been outreach within their networks like their family, colleges, churches, associations, etc. You know if you look at engineering, IT, and construction management there is a great amount of young talented African American entrepreneurs.

What are some areas where you see bright spots?

Well, engineering, IT, construction management compose a great amount of talented entrepreneurs. The ingredients to new entrepreneurs are retiring professionals, college graduates and military officers are the key ingredients to new entrepreneurs. They have acquired unique skill sets and can apply that to starting a business.

So things are ...

Well let me say this, black business demographics are not at parity with the mainstream. We do $136 billion in revenue, if we were at parity that would be $1.4 trillion in revenue. We employ 910,000 workers. If we were at parity that would be 7.1 million workers. Also, we have 1.9 million firms -- at parity that would be 3.3 million firms. We still have a long ways to go.

I'd like to get your thoughts on President Obama and his policies towards business.

President Obama has a strong love for construction unions. Construction unions have a fierce hatred for small business, particularly black, Hispanic, and woman-owned firms. Consequently, black contractors are doing much less federal work than any other president since Eisenhower. SBA-backed loans to blacks have been cut by more than half. The small business goal by the federal government has not been met in any of the six years of the Obama administration. His heavy regulation pace is crippling us. His administration is not good for business and especially black business.

Recently Paul Ryan referred to the culture of the inner city and in particular men in the inner city not wanting to work or value hard work. I'd like to know your reaction to his comments? Do you agree?

Yes, I would agree. I see it in the South Side and West Side of Chicago; South Central L.A., all of Detroit, etc. It is one of the reasons my wife and I started the NBCC -- to economically empower African American communities through entrepreneurship and self-help.

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