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Being a small business owner is difficult, especially for minority-owned businesses. Berkshire Black Economic Council hopes to change that

PITTSFIELD — Warren Dews Jr. has lived in the Berkshires for 11 years. He has been involved in numerous business ventures and serves on several area boards. He knows local bank presidents by their first name.

Yet, when Dews recently tried to obtain a loan to open a cigar lounge in Pittsfield, he found no takers.

"I know how to run a business," he said. "I did the business report, had a business plan. I did all these things, and there was just nothing out there for me to get a loan.

"If someone like me knows them and they know me and I can't get a loan, then what about the other person who's out there trying to start a business," he said. 

Dews is Black.

This is where the Berkshire Black Economic Council hopes that it can make a difference. The objective of the small nonprofit formed in May is to continue to foster, design and build Black- and other minority-owned businesses in the Berkshires, including Black nonprofits, according to its website. The council has 65 Black-owned businesses in its directory.

The group is focusing on growth and sustainability; business education and mentorship; economic justice; marketing and media; and funding and investment, which includes assisting Black-owned businesses in their search for grants.

It wants to assist Black-owned businesses to become minority business enterprises, and help other businesses with diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the greater Berkshire business community.

"We don't just want a seat at the table," Dews said. "We want seats at the table. ... If you are willing to take those steps, then we will work with you."

"The reality from my perspective is that we're living the second civil rights movement right now," said board member Shirley Edgerton, founder of the Women of Color Giving Circle and the cultural proficiency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools. "So, I think that it's important that, as a Black organization, we help to educate others, not just the Black community."

The group is collaborating with, but is not part of, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts in Boston. Members say it was important for the group to retain its own identity at the outset, because Boston is so far away. 

"We decided to form because a bunch of us are entrepreneurs and long-standing members of the Berkshire community who are passionate about economic development," Berkshire Black Economic Council President Alfred "A.J." Enchill Jr., an aide to state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said during a recent meeting the council board members had with The Eagle's editorial board. 

"With our expertise and our experience, and working in the community day in and day out, we decided to join forces and make our presence known and find a way to regionalize and create different policy and strategy initiatives and different economic development initiatives to add to the Black business community here," he said. 

Enchill grew up in Pittsfield, the son of an immigrant from Ghana who has owned and operated Elegant Stitches, a small business in Pittsfield that is marking its 25th anniversary. His father,  Alfred Sr., his brother, Auric, and Dews also are members of the council's eight-member board. The council is made up of all volunteers, and it is seeking sources of sustainable funding. It is hiring a grant writer. 

Over the past nine months, the council has developed an economic development plan, and held its first event — a speed networking expo in the fall at The Stationery Factory in Dalton.

"At the time, we were able to get about 20 Black businesses under one roof," A.J. Enchill said, "and celebrate their stories and communicate the various issues they've experienced on their way to getting started.

"We have our board members all asking important questions amongst the greater Berkshires business community," he said. "What is it that you do to start a business relationship, or what were your challenges to starting a business, or various financial questions. We're trying to get those answers, and get to the root of their problems.

"I think a lot of people want to know about what Black businesses are doing and how they can help to support economic justice."

Acting as a resource for the Berkshire Black community can help the council benefit the region's entire economic development, Dews said.

"If we are able to thrive, the Berkshires will thrive," he said. "It's going to help everyone."

Board member Marcus Coleman used an analogy to describe the council's aspirations and goals.

"Think of us as farmers,"  Coleman said. "Right now, we're planting a seed and we're fertilizing the ground so we can grow the Black community, and a big part of growing the Black community is the economic aspect. So, by empowering Black businesses, the businesses are able to create communities that are self-sustaining.

"And that's the goal here," said Coleman, a financial adviser who is from New Jersey. He assists the council with finance, research and operations. "If we make a great blueprint, people like myself, who are transplants, will move to the area. That's a benefit not just to the Black community, but to the Berkshires."

One of the council's major roles is to provide Black-owned businesses with the resources they need when looking for access to grants and capital from places they might not know exist. In an interview with The Eagle in October, A.J. Enchill said many Black-owned businesses don't fit into the parameters that private and public entities require enterprises to meet in order to award grants and loans.

"Most entrepreneurs of minority businesses are individuals," Alfred Enchill Sr. said. "One thing that happens is that the business is registered in your name, and sometimes the bank account is in your name. So, when these grants come out, [the owners] go in, and if the business is in their name, it's supposed to be for the business, so, you don't qualify right off the bat.

"These are some of the things we know that exist in the community," he said. "... We can educate them so when the grants come in and when there's a business opportunity, you can go in and say, 'This is the business entity, and I run the business.'"

Numerous grant programs are available that minority business owners don't always know about.

"When we surveyed Black businesses throughout the county, almost 70 percent did not receive any COVID relief," A.J. Enchill said.

"There's a ton of grants out there and resources both federal and state, if you're thinking about technical assistance," Coleman said. "A lot of Black businesses just aren't aware of these resources. ... We do that due diligence for them and we present it to them from a trusted source. We have had similar experiences, and they feel comfortable."

Being able to speak with someone who comes from the same cultural background is an added plus, board members said.

"To use an analogy, if you spoke one language, you want to go to someone that you can talk to," Dews sad. "The language that Black people speak might not be understood by certain organizations. The trust is a really key factor."

"I think all groups have culture, whether we're talking about race, ethnic groups or gender," Edgerton said. "There's a certain culture, a certain behavior and attitude, and all of us sitting here have a connection to the Black community in terms of our history, our identity and our culture. So, we understand that if you want to ensure that information is flowing through the Black community, you utilize informal sources like churches, or utilize folks who are like the mayors  of the community. They've never been elected, but they are the real resources in the community.

"The Berkshire Black Economic Council can serve that purpose for the Black community."

For information on the Berkshire Black Economic Council, visit berkshirebec.org.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.

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