By Erica Wright
Hundreds of minority business owners gathered Wednesday for the inaugural IGNITE! Alabama event at Regions Field hosted by Sheila Tyson, Convener of the Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable and Nichelle Nix, Director of the Alabama Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs.
The event focuses on minority women business owners, entrepreneurs and Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCUs) and steps to empower Alabama’s next generation of leaders.
“Our goal is to actually help women start their own business, promote women and give them a way to advance their own business and bring in all of the resources from the state of Alabama for minority women and this is a great opportunity for us to do that through this partnership,” Tyson said.
Nix said the state has an initiative that focuses on HBCUs “to promote and increase the economic impact of [the institutions] in the state of Alabama. We have 14 HBCUs here and we want to serve as a model to the nation to show that we can come up with a comprehensive strategy to make our HBCUs more competitive.”
The daylong event included an HBCU president’s round table followed by a luncheon and panel discussions and celebrity guest speaker, actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy Huxtable, the youngest child of Cliff and Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. There was also a Minority and Business Resource Expo and an HBCU Business Pitch Competition and a show featuring Alabama State University and Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University drumlines.
During the luncheon, the first panel discussion focused on getting started in business and access entrepreneurship resources.
Dr. Del Smith, Dean of the School of Business and Public Affairs at Alabama A & M said that entrepreneurship doesn’t have to start in a classroom.
“Not to take anything away from the professors but when we talk about entrepreneurship, we’re talking about something that really cannot be taught from a book,” he said. “We encourage our students to go out into the community to take part in the entrepreneurial ecosystem like pitch competitions; when we have an entrepreneurial networking event, we encourage students to get out of the classroom and take part in that… when you combine that along with classroom education that provides the greatest opportunity for a student to be successful.”
Dr. Theresa Welbourne, of EDGE Tuscaloosa, which helps entrepreneurs with startups, talked about the need for business owners to participate in workshops which are important “because you’re always being questioned and people are asking ‘what do you do’ and asking about your business,” she said.
The second panel focused on access to capital options for small minority business owners.
Kendra Key, with Hope Credit Union, said her business has made a commitment to lend primarily in underserved communities.
“Our mission is to build assets, strengthen communities and improve lives,” she said. “Everything that we do every day is to facilitate greater economic mobility so we provide affordable access to capital . . . we are committed to give $19.1 million in loans over the next three years to minority and women-owned businesses. We also provide financial literacy… we exist to be a partner in communities of color.”
Lawanza Webb, with the Jefferson County Workforce Development Center, discussed apprenticeships programs.
“We have an apprenticeship program where we pay a certain amount of money and train… we also offer up to $20,000 for two years for a client that wants go to training and we have Jefferson State and Lawson State Community Colleges that are participating in this program where we pay for tuition, books, fees and all the student needs but support services.”
Following the panel discussions, Pulliam discussed her journey as an actor and an entrepreneur.
She heads her own nonprofit organization, Kamp Kizzy, which focuses on empowerment and building self-esteem of youth. She recently released her own line of meat and poultry seasoning, Keshia’s Kitchen and hosts her own podcast, Candidly Keshia.
She encouraged the audience to never give up on their passions.
“When you are doing something that you love, you never feel like you work a day in your life,” she said. “When you’re working hard, when you’re dedicated, you are going to get ‘no’s’, you are going to hit speed bumps and you are going to get ‘not right now’ but it only takes one ‘yes.’
Pulliam said she knows about following her passions.
“I have been working for 40 years, I turned 40 in April and my first job was at nine months old in a Johnson and Johnson ad with the first black family, I was the little naked baby, but that is where I got my start,” she said. “A lot of people are not fortunate to discover what their passions are or what it is that they’re supposed to do at a young age where I was fortunate enough to begin my career at nine months old.”
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.