October 13, 2009

Black-owned business on the decline, Lab alum says

John W. Rogers Jr. (Lab School ’76) addressed the state of black business in Chicago on Friday afternoon in the Social Science building as part of the 500th Convocation ceremony. In the talk, entitled, “Boom Town? The State of Black Business in Chicago,” Rogers said black businesses continue to struggle for equal footing with “majority owned,” or non-minority businesses, despite improvements in racial relations.

“People have stopped asking why companies are not hiring African-Americans for higher position jobs and using minority-owned businesses,” Rogers said.

Rogers, founder of the Ariel Capital Management, the first black-owned mutual fund, painted a picture of the condition of black-owned businesses and blacks in the business world far different from what he described as the media’s optimistic depiction of black business.

After the civil rights movement, blacks’ optimism for success in all career fields was high. Companies like Johnson Publishing, owner of Ebony and Jet magazines, and Johnson Products played a large role in the black community.

However, with widespread desegregation of the workplace and neighborhoods, it became harder for black businesses to compete with mainstream businesses for clientele, Rogers said.

“We’ve gone backwards,” he said. Today, only one minority company is represented in Chicago’s top 25, he added.

He turned to the subject of minorities in upper-level positions at mainstream companies, where he said interest has been flagging.

“In the past 7 or 8 years, there has been less interest in diversity issues,” Rogers said, adding that it is considered a faux pas for minorities to inquire about hiring practices.

“People are afraid of sounding politically incorrect,” he said.

He explained that diversity in the workplace still needs to be resolved and will require an honest dialogue about hiring processes and diversity as a whole. Rogers said he believes one way to solve the lack of diversity is for the board members of the companies to push for hiring more minorities.

Rogers closed on an optimistic note, showing examples of mainstream companies like McDonald’s and Exelon that hire blacks and do business with minority-owned firms.

Similarly to how the inclusion of blacks to major league baseball made baseball a better game, Rogers said, “If we start to include African-Americans in all of our businesses, we can build a better country.”