Q&A: Melvin Gravely's view at the crossroads of race and business
From your website, it looks like you're focused on organizations that are looking for a more diverse supply chain. What are their main concerns today?
Most of our work is with intermediaries that are trying to support major organizations and minority businesses in doing more business together. We do a lot of work with corporations, but not primarily. We really do more of our work with the intermediaries, the chambers of commerce and economic development organizations. What's their concern? Everyone's got the same question. How do we get more minority firms to scale, and how do we influence that in ways that are more sustainable? So we spend a lot of time helping communities and helping organizations answer that question in their own unique ways, for their own unique needs.
Do you also work with individual entrepreneurs?
We do, but it's probably 5 to 7 percent of the work we do. We help them put together good, solid deals, so if they're trying to do an acquisition, and especially if they're in a minority-majority kind of relationship, or if there are two companies trying to come together to serve a major organization, we might get in the middle of that to make sure all is structured properly for everyone to win.
Has it become harder or easier to make these connections?
It's not getting more difficult, but the expectations are changing. Where before, corporations would say I'll break my packages down (into) smaller pieces because I want to do more work with minority firms, major corporations now are saying I just can't afford to do that. I'm looking for minority firms that can already do the size business I need them to do. But we're also seeing a more sophisticated minority business owner. So I think the matches are happening better. What we're going to see though, is the haves and the have-nots are going to continue to grow, so you're going to see sophisticated entrepreneurs of color grow significant firms, but the smaller firms that are less sophisticated are going to continue to struggle, and that's just the outcome of how our economy has changed.
What should minority entrepreneurs do? What are some things they should be looking at?
They have got to answer the question "what would I be doing if I wasn't a minority firm?" So, take advantage of whatever programs are available to assist you, but you've got to be doing the activities you would be doing if you weren't a minority firm. So, if that is finding good partners, if that is hanging out in venture groups, if that is spending more time in R&D, or whatever those things are, those are things you're going to have to do.
What are the misconceptions or myths that surround the whole idea of developing a more diverse supply base?
I think some people who are not in a minority group think that minorities are given business. That just doesn't happen in 2010. That's a big myth. Therefore, based on that myth, people are putting together sham partnerships with a minority out front and thinking that's going to work, and in today's world that just works less and less. On the other side, though, I think minorities have a myth that there's someone intentionally blocking them from opportunity, and quite frankly that is very, very rare in 2010. That just doesn't happen. Those two myths though, I think, stand in our way of the next level of progress.
What is that next level? What do things look like 10 years from now?
I would say more like 20 years from now. But the next level looks like what I'm calling entrepreneurial parity, where without regard to your race, without regard to your gender, you are pursuing opportunity based on all the other factors that matter. Your education, your experience, your relationships, your connections, your resources. And when we are at that point, when we can say everybody's pursuing entrepreneurship at the same level, I think we're at entrepreneurial parity. I see that in the next 20 years, but we've got to remember there's a sliver of our society that is really going to drive entrepreneurial enterprises, and it's a pretty darn small sliver, and I think we lose sight of that when we talk about minority companies.
Are you actually seeing more minority entrepreneurs going into high-tech businesses?
Very, very slowly. And part of the reason it's been slow is it's a whole new world, a whole new paradigm, a new set of rules, and it takes awhile for people to understand how to navigate those waters. It's happening, but it's been a slow move.
Is it a matter of young minority kids being exposed to the types of opportunities for entrepreneurship that they wouldn't have seen 20 or 30 years ago?
What you're talking about is redefining success. I was raised to get a good education and get a job, because that was success for minorities back in the '60s and '70s. And I think now we need to redefine it -- there are multiple paths to success. Get a good education, get a job; get a good education, start a business; get education, get a job, then leave and start a business. And we have not been talking about that.
One of the topics you speak and write about is the lost art of entrepreneurship. Has the art of entrepreneurship been lost?
This is so controversial. But when corporate America opened doors to minorities, we almost shut off our entrepreneurial switch. Because we redefined success. My parents made it clear: We couldn't work in corporations -- and you shall now work in corporations. That's why they sacrificed so I could go to college. And so although that was great, we've taken our best and brightest and put them in corporations, and they're not deployed in entrepreneurship. Our challenge is to make sure that the next generation regains the lost art of entrepreneurship and begins to think in a new way. Some of this hip hop culture, we see that these folks are not asking for permission to start companies, and the Internet is allowing them to do things that I couldn't have done when I was their age.