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We called it The Hill, and it was the economic and cultural heart of my hometown.
This was Lancaster, SC, where the textile industry was once the lifeblood of our local economy, giving way to a vibrant district of black entrepreneurs and business owners known as The Hill. It was our black Wall Street, reminiscent of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta and Harlem in New York City. The Hill was where one could find doctors and lawyers, retail stores, restaurants, seafood markets, and a myriad of service businesses.
It was a place where issues were discussed and new ideas were tested. We did not have Starbucks; instead, we had the Nick Nack Café where friends and families gathered. As children, businesspersons were our role models – local superheroes, even. The Hill was the bustling epicenter of our local society.
Today, the textile industry in Lancaster has long vanished, and The Hill, as I knew it, is gone – replaced by empty storefronts and hollowed-out buildings.
Unfortunately, this same story once played out in cities and towns across America. These communities were left reeling with few high-paying jobs, lagging economies, and a dismantled social structure. Consequently, young, capable workers found themselves unemployed and disengaged from the larger society instead of working in manufacturing plants or in local businesses. Joblessness and underemployment lie at the root of many of our country’s social problems, such as crime, neighborhood decay and broken families.
This problem defies easy – or quick – solutions. We can’t simply revitalize communities overnight that lost thousands of jobs over decades. New corner stores or barbershops can’t fully make up for shuttered factories. Targeted government programs can help, but strategic private-sector investment will also be critical for the revitalization and development of communities left behind.
But most importantly, in order to breathe new life into those towns and cities, we must harness the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that has long been pervasive – but too often today untapped – in the African American community.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, African American innovators and entrepreneurs were prolific. They included the likes of Thomas Jennings, the first black patent recipient for a dry cleaning process; Lewis Latimer, who invented a technique for making carbon filaments for the electric incandescent lamp; and Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire who revolutionized the hair care industry.
Despite this rich entrepreneurial history, the economic potential of African American ingenuity has yet to be fully embraced or realized. While the black unemployment rate has fallen to a historically low 6.8%, it remains double the white jobless rate. White workers are more than twice as likely as black workers to be self-employed. Furthermore, African Americans are significantly underrepresented in corporate boardrooms.
While there are historic factors that have contributed to these imbalances, the data above reveal an urgent need for greater focus on unlocking the full economic potential of black innovators and entrepreneurs.
For starters, we must think bigger and encourage more black innovators and entrepreneurs to develop high-growth, high-demand companies in new economy industries such as technology, transportation, clean energy, healthcare and advanced manufacturing. We must also invest more in education and job training – particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and recognize that our kids are not just competing with each other but with youngsters from around the world.
In addition, we must help more minority owned businesses access capital and sell their goods and services abroad, considering that 95% of the world's consumers live outside the United States.
The combination of innovation, entrepreneurship and free enterprise holds unlimited economic possibilities for African Americans, their families and their communities – to say nothing about the vast benefits to the overall American economy.
We have a strong tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship in the black community, fostered by a history of economic exclusion that drove so many of us to create our own businesses. We cannot afford to let our collective ingenuity lie dormant now. We must harness it if we are going to move ahead.
We have done this before when the times called for it. We can do it again now.