The chamber of commerce serving local Black businesses is undergoing a significant transformation.
Nothing is off limits – even the nonprofit’s name is up in the air.
Some of its members prefer the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce, the name the organization has used for the last few years. Others prefer Black Chamber Fort Wayne.
No matter what it’s called, the Black chamber is an economic advocacy organization for its 70 members, which include businesses, nonprofits and individuals.
Ramadan Abdul-Azeez, the organization’s newly elected president, is eager to increase membership and modernize the chamber’s operations during the volunteer position’s three-year term.
Since he joined the group in January 2020, Abdul-Azeez said, he has suggested “quite a few sweeping changes.” Each proposal has been reviewed and voted on by members, who have embraced the ideas despite a natural reluctance, Abdul-Azeez said.
A question is posted in his office: “What’s scarier, success or failure?” Abdul-Azeez volunteered his answer.
“Success causes change,” he said, “and change scares everybody.”
The entrepreneur, who owns two information technology companies, previously served as vice president of strategic planning for a national IT organization. He has drawn on that experience to suggest updates for the local Black chamber.
The board’s structure has been revised, for example, to include four vice presidents, each with a specific area of responsibility such as finance, marketing and operations. Previously, the chamber had just one vice president.
“The executive committee became more defined,” said Abdul-Azeez, who served as the group’s first vice president of finance.
He also proposed asking business owners who were able to pay chamber dues five years in advance. The plan succeeded in generating more working capital for the nonprofit.
At his suggestion, the chamber voted to adopt bookkeeping software to manage its finances and apply for a credit card in the organization’s name.
Shalonda “Pinky” Saunders is among the chamber members who have welcomed the updates.
“I think with any organization or business, change and growth are great when they go hand in hand,” she said, adding that the ideas from Abdul-Azeez are helping the chamber grow “to the level it needs to be.”
The owner of Sew Pinky makes custom-designed clothing for women and girls, a business that grew from her desire to make clothes for her niece.
As a young, Black business owner, Saunders has found local resources for minority business owners lacking.
She has turned to Abdul-Azeez for coaching.
“He’s just a ball of knowledge,” she said. “I like to feed off of and learn from people who’ve been where I want to go.”
Abdul-Azeez is now spearheading a review of what the chamber offers in exchange for dues. He believes there should be “very tangible, measurable benefits” to membership.
He also pushed the chamber to modernize its website so people logging on could complete a membership application and pay dues with a credit card. Previously, sign-ups and payments were taken only in person.
Clifford Clarke, the group’s immediate past president, described the organization’s new website as dynamic, saying the content and images will continue to change.
“There’s no end date for when it will be done, done, done, as we say in project management,” he said during a phone interview.
A new logo is also featured on the updated website, which was officially rolled out on July 20.
Perhaps the chamber’s most ambitious project is a new business directory, which is expected to be finished in the fall.
“These things always happen slower than you want them to,” Clarke said.
The group is going through the painstaking process of verifying the accuracy of the 48-page directory’s listings. Then the book must be printed, bound and distributed.
Also in the fall, Black Chamber Fort Wayne will advertise on four billboards around town.
Abdul-Azeez said the $2,400 price tag will be covered by higher dues assessed to the 13-member board members. Six executive board members are asked to pay $500 each in January, and the other seven are asked to pay $100 each for a total of $3,700.
Clarke said the marketing blitz will feature the chamber itself rather than promote its business directory.
Ready to launch
The billboard campaign will focus on the chamber’s advocacy role. Members strengthen their voices by gathering with like-minded people to lobby for changes, Clarke said. Chamber leaders’ responsibilities include representing members’ interests in conversations with local and state officials.
The Black chamber has previously advocated for equitable use of minority-owned contracting firms for public projects, such as Electric Works, the $286 million mixed-use redevelopment of the former General Electric campus just south of downtown.
Chamber leaders have also pushed the city to buy from diverse suppliers, Clarke said, adding that small-business owners typically don’t have the time to meet with local officials.
Some other organizations, including Greater Fort Wayne Inc., offer to advocate for members’ interests, but Black business owners often have a slightly different set of concerns from what white business owners have, Clarke said.
It’s common for Black owners to start a business on the side and try to build it up to a full-time job, he said. Some reasons for that are lack of business experience and lack of access to capital, he said.
In the spotlight
Abdul-Azeez wants the chamber to focus on helping Black residents launch new businesses and grow existing ones. He’s committed to a series of presentations and newspaper articles that will document each step in the process. He plans to submit the pieces to The Journal Gazette and Fort Wayne Ink Spot, a local Black-owned publication.
Abdul-Azeez plans to begin with how people can establish personal credit. Additional sessions will look at how to write a business plan, offer marketing advice and help with access to capital.
“There will be a lot of conversation around what helps you build a healthy business,” he said. “We’re trying to help build business capacity on the southeast side so they can create jobs.”
Plans call for board training in December and nine public meetings in 2022. The chamber will skip meetings in July and August, when many members are on vacation, Abdul-Azeez said.
His term is three years, but he’s taking one year at a time; 2022 goals include hosting a golf outing fundraiser and a business fair to spotlight members.
As for membership, which is now about 70, Abdul-Azeez has thoughts on that, too.
“I’d like to see us in the 300 range,” he said. “Why set a safe number?”