While we all wish we could wave a magic wand and create a business environment full of inclusivity and equal opportunity for minority business enterprises (MBEs), sadly history tells us that is not the case. In fact, according to a study from the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, at current growth rates, it will take a stunning 333 years to achieve economic parity. While there are many nonprofit advocacy organizations and corporate initiatives aimed at addressing this issue, we need our elected leaders to step up and remove the barriers facing many minority business owners through legislation. Drafting, formulating, and implementing actual legislation is a fundamental part of the American governmental system which makes it a highly political process. As business owners we tend to shy away from being politically partisan. However, the very laws that are passed that impact minority businesses are done through political processes and strategies. It is something we cannot ignore any longer. To make institutional change, the minority business community must hone a more sharpened political strategy that will ensure elected officials will implement laws that make a positive impact for the overall minority business community.
The government cannot make changes to laws and regulations without the voice of the practitioners that are living with the challenges of the disparate policies that are denying minority businesses access to contracts and capital that will enable them to grow wealth in their communities. Throughout my professional journey as an organizational advocate and entrepreneur, I have found that the most powerful voice with our elected leaders is that of the small business owner with a keen mind for political strategy. This applies to federal, state, and local level officials as all elected leaders are motivated by two major forces: constituent stories and financial support.
I am going to share a few personal tips that I believe any minority entrepreneur (or any entrepreneur really) can use to advocate for policies that will help create greater opportunities for their business.
Determine what change needs to happen.
A while back, a local city council was proposing legislation to implement a new higher minimum wage requirement for all businesses regardless of business size. This would have had a profound financial impact on small family immigrant businesses (restaurants, coffee shops, corner grocery stores) that have spent decades in their local ethnic communities. These immigrant owners were never politically active and ran their businesses as most families run their businesses. However, upon learning about this local change brewing at the city council, a few key owners acted upon themselves to organize other local owners and prevent this proposed change. They wrote up a proposal outlining what they thought would be an equitable counter-proposal to the proposed wage hike and circulated it in local ethnic media and neighborhood flyers. Bottomline, they ideated a proposed change on what needed to happen and let their local communities know what the change was.
Building and maintaining relationships is a two-way street.
The fundamentally most important aspect of political advocacy is to build and maintain strategic relationships with your elected leaders. I have lived in Austin, Texas for the past 20 years. During my time in the Austin community, my fellow AAPI community leaders and I have developed long-standing relationships with the mayor, city council members, and other regional community leaders. I always seek out leaders who want to learn about myself, my business, and my community because I am part of the local economic fabric and I treat them as strategic partners. My success is their success and vice versa. Relationships are a two-way street, and it demands a dedication of time and energy which means it is not always about what the leaders can do for you, but it is also about what you can do for the leaders. These leaders crave information about the local conditions on the ground, how many people you are hiring, what your challenges are, and what you are doing to improve your community by articulating new innovative ideas. To strengthen my relationships, I offer to host elected officials to meet others like myself. These leaders enjoy meeting new constituents that could be their voting and fiscal supporters. They are always seeking to expand their network of constituents so they can better serve the people that voted for them and expand their financial resources.
Be prepared when you meet with elected officials: always have an ask and always offer to help!
I am action-oriented and always overprepare for a meeting with elected officials. I always do my research on the leader I am about to meet, who they are connected with and what their passion points are. Do we share common interests? Who are our common acquaintances? These are key baseline information points that I use to weave into my conversations with my elected leaders. This builds a personal connection of commonality and sets you apart from other constituents that typically enter conversations with immediate demands. Elected officials are people also and need to be treated with respect because they are taking valuable time to meet with you on a matter that is of mutual interest.
Take some time to gather relevant data or research to support your cause and consider going over talking points with a trusted partner, friend, or family member. In addition, never underestimate the power of your personal and business story. Stories are one of the most powerful resources you have in your advocacy toolbelt. Often, it’s the stories you share that members think back to when they’re debating policy in committee hearings or during floor sessions. They always want to find a way to help so never enter a meeting without a few asks that you need action on. It can be a referral to another agency or administration leader, or it can be for a follow up meeting at some point in the future to keep the leader updated on whatever subject you are covering.
I have served on several state/local and federal boards and advisory commissions in various capacities. Elected leaders have the power to appoint local volunteers to tap their subject matter expertise on a variety of subjects. Every state/local jurisdiction has established boards and commissions set up and I always offer to volunteer myself or identify other viable candidates for appointment consideration. These local appointments are extremely powerful relationship building opportunities that help shape local legislation and policy. Many cities have boards and commissions specifically for minority business equity and inclusion, transportation, environment, land use, parks and recreation, etc. The list is endless but if you take the time to offer to serve in a volunteer civic capacity, you will have differentiated yourself from other constituents and your expertise will be greatly valued.
Showcase your meeting and say THANK YOU.
Elected officials love publicity and anything you can do to amplify their success will reap great rewards. When you conclude a meeting with the elected official, ask the staff if it is okay to take a picture with the leader. These are important memorabilia that can be highlighted on their social media and your business social media. I have learned to always take a picture with the leaders I meet and find ways to show gratitude to the leader for sharing their time with me. I recently had the opportunity to meet Vice President Kamala Harris at her residence to celebrate the Lunar New Year. As I walked up to take my official photo with the vice president, I thanked her for her service and then asked her to attend one of NMSDC’s signature events which led to her instructing her staff to follow up with me on my request. Being an entrepreneur has trained me to always take advantage of any opportunity to make an ask. In addition, I shared the photo we took together on my personal social media to showcase my visit with the vice president, amplify the importance of MBEs in the economy, and show how Vice President Harris supports that cause.
When thinking about the policies that affect your business it can be easy to focus on the negativity and political division that so often characterizes our government institutions. However, if I have learned anything about being an advocate during my time both as a minority entrepreneur and as the leader of a nonprofit looking to advance minority-owned businesses it is that change is possible, but it takes a dedicated political strategy, a strong relationship mindset, and the courage to always make the ask.