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Regional Interests

Investing in Black-owned businesses

Last year major companies emphasized, “Black Lives Matter,” but how much progress has actually been made? Portland-based entrepreneur Stephen Green joins us to discuss the work that still needs to be done to uplift Black-owned businesses.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last July, the Portland entrepreneur Stephen Green published an open letter saying that it was time for a new approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. The old approach, he said, too often turned into pretty words, virtue signaling or empty promises. So he created a website to get people to pledge to do more with the concrete list of actions they can take. More than 400 people from over 300 companies eventually signed on. We thought this is a good time to check in to see how much those signatures have turned into action. Stephen Green, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Stephen Green: Thanks for having me, Dave, great to be here today.

Dave Miller: Can you remind us what exactly prompted you to create that Do More Do Better pledge last summer?

Stephen Green: Yeah, I think for me, it was talking to people in the community and hearing how they’re being impacted by the social unrest we were seeing, but also navigating the craziness of the pandemic and sitting in realizing that much of the work that we look to do here is based in good intentions and promises, but it’s very little often settled in really centering experiences and outcomes and in the understanding that at the end of the day, this is, this is work that we all have a role in and so what would it look like to kind of lay out instead of a pledge or promise or or just a blm sign in your yard, what would actual individual actions look like that people could take on into their daily lives?

Dave Miller: What are some of the things that you were hoping you would see, what were some of those actions?

Stephen Green: Yeah, so part of it was really helping people understand first and foremost that this is work and there is no done, there is no finish line, there is no absolution from the discomfort that many folks were feeling back in May and June and July of last year as they were seeing people march all over our city, and also helping them understand that that’s okay. There’s a really good life to be had in being uncomfortable and centering the experiences and outcomes of other people - that doesn’t cost you anything. And so many of the actions are all based on things that you don’t need a budget for but are all centered around someone else’s experiences: outcomes for them versus well, here’s what I’m comfortable with and here’s how far I’m willing to go. Oftentimes the things that we’re comfortable with doing actually don’t produce outcomes or change the experiences for the folks that we’re trying to impact.

Dave Miller: How much of that has actually materialized. What have you seen come in the last year?

Stephen Green: Yeah, I think, you know, a couple of things came to light. One, the pandemic and the social unrest, it’s impacted everyone. There’s been no one that has been left not being impacted in some way, shape or form by, by what’s been going on. Two, so many people felt alone and unseen and, and this was an opportunity to have a multitude of individual conversations with folks who just said, thank you, thank you for speaking this up because you know, I was thinking that this was something for someone who was smarter who had a lot of money or who was leading our company versus man, this really empowers me as a janitor, project manager, whoever, to go and lead by example and start instituting those things and and be the change that we all want to see happen.

Dave Miller: So as I mentioned, you started this because you were sick of seeing pledges for work on racial justice turned into pretty words, virtue signaling or empty promises.

To what extent have you seen that history repeated?

Stephen Green: Yeah, okay. I think less so about being sick of, of, you know, the empty promises and pledges and more so about being emboldened by the people that I was seeing marching out in the streets and it was an opportunity to be bold in the moment. And I think for some folks that meant, you know, being on the bridge and laying down and the solidarity that happened there. And for me my bridge was using my voice and platform to talk about what this looks like, you know, in a business, in an office. And so, you know, I think folks have had great intentions oftentimes, but we need to speak further than that and get to, you know, really changing the experiences and outcomes and that means having some tough conversations. And I think in Portland, we’ve historically stayed away from having those tough conversations. And generally the folks that get to define whether conversation is tough or not is generally people in power and people that don’t look like me.

Dave Miller: So what’s a tough conversation that you think is really important that’s not happening right now, the uncomfortable or tough conversation that you desperately want to see?

Stephen Green: Oh man, there’s a lot, but you know me being really focused on black businesses and latinx businesses, five years ago it punched me in the gut hearing and finding out from data from the S. B. A. That there was a 94% drop in S. B. A. Loans to black businesses in the state of Oregon, right? And during the same exact time frame over 10 years where the number of loans were dropping, the number of black businesses more than doubled, right? And so, to know that that reality is there and no one raising a red flag and saying, hey this is an issue. I don’t know what the answer is, but we for darn sure need to have a conversation about it. That’s definitely something that sits with me as one of those examples of, hey, y’all this is happening. We’ve got to talk about it and even if you don’t have the answers or the budget, you’ve got to at least be willing to say like this is a real problem. And the idea that we’ve been told in economic development circles that a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s just not true. It’s just not factually, statistically true. So there’s one example of something that comes to mind.

Dave Miller: So just sticking with that one. So the S.B.A., the Small Business Administration, what would you like to see at the, at the local or state level with that huge data point in mind? I mean, what do you want to see policymakers or the private industry do here with that in mind?

Stephen Green: Yeah, I think it all starts with calling it out, right, and I think being a recovering banker and someone who’s underwritten more than one thousand loans here locally for small businesses and, and run businesses myself. I know the answer is just not calling Wells Fargo or Umpqua and saying you need to lend more. It starts with actually bringing the community together and hearing from both sides of the table. What are the constraints, what’s changed? When it comes to black businesses, the community has really changed over the last 30 years. If you look at the 1990 census, 80% of the state’s Black population lived in two zip codes. And now we have more than 4000 businesses all over the state, including farmers in Junction city. So, with all those changes, and all the things happening on the financial side of things as well, more than 40% of banks in the state of Oregon have closed here since 2008. It at least begs the opportunity to have a conversation and that’s the public sector, that’s the private sector, that’s the Oregon Bankers Association, that’s Prosper Portland, that’s the state coming and saying, Hey, even if we don’t have answers, we’re gonna at least kind of convene and say this is an issue and let’s bring the best minds to the table to start talking about this and start hearing from black founders about the plight that they’re having.

Dave Miller: Stephen Graham, we have about 30 seconds left. What’s next for you?

Stephen Green: You know, continue to, to give and be and show up. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned over these months is the most important thing is to show up and listen to folks and, and really be present and you know, big change happens in small doses. And so for me that, that means, picking days of the week where I only support women owned businesses or black owned businesses or latinx owned businesses and sharing those amazing businesses and their journeys with other folks and hoping that they’ll do the same thing.

Dave Miller: Stephen Green, thanks very much for joining us.

Stephen Green: Thanks for having me. Dave.

Dave Miller: Stephen Green is a Portland-based entrepreneur, he’s the founder of PitchBlack, it’s an event to invest in and lift up black entrepreneurs. He is the chief operating officer of the book series, “A Kids Book About.”

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