By Tracie N. Jenkins
When Leon Jenkins sent an email to the National Black Chamber of Commerce to express interest in green businesses and green job initiatives, he had no idea that it would set off a chain of events that would lead to formation of the nation’s first church-based chamber of commerce.
Jenkins received a response from, NBCC officials within minutes interested in meeting on their next visit to Texas.
He relayed plans for the meeting to Walter August, Jr., senior pastor of the Church at Bethel’s Place, where Jenkin’s serves as finance officer. Driven by the urgency of Southwest Houston’s need, instead of waiting, August and Jenkins, along with a Houston businessman, made arrangements to meet immediately and boarded a plane to Washington, D.C.
The pivotal trip would set in motion the beginning stages of an initiative to empower and uplift businesses in the African-American community through church based chambers.
“We ventured there on a fact-finding mission and when we got over there, we spent about 10 minutes in the boardroom and they revealed they had been seeking to start chambers within the church body,” said August.
NBCC President/CEO Harry Alford shared his vision of launching a network of such chambers aimed at empowering churches in congregations throughout the nation.
“We didn’t go up there to be a church chamber of commerce, but once we made our presentation, they realized we had all the infrastructure in place to actually make what they envisioned into a reality,” said Jenkins.
A major sustaining force in Southwest Houston, the southwest Houston church has spawned such organizations as Bethel’s Place (offering youth enrichment and adult education) and Heavenly Hands (offering food, clothing, and housing assistance), as well as numerous other community outreach service organizations.
NBCC officials were impressed with the existing outreach initiatives and infrastructure that Bethel’s Family had in placed and proposed it as the site of its first church based chamber of commerce.
Embracing the vision and accepting the charge, August and Jenkins took the return flight to Texas to begin the work of empowering all African-American and small business owners, within their field of influence.In a span of seven months, the Chamber has grown to include 120 businesses, adding new members at a rate of 16 businesses per month.
The Chamber, with Bethel’s Family at the center, provides unique opportunities that allow businesses to benefit from the patronage of the thousands that Bethel’s Family draws in monthly. As BPBCC President and CEO, Jenkins coined the “Community Business Success Model,” a model that encourages chamber member businesses to not only patronize each other, but invest in revitalizing surrounding communities.
“In terms of social welfare, the reality is, all businesses have to pay taxes. And so, to the extent that they can do charitable things in the community through a vehicle that we’re creating, I think that bodes extremely well to what we’re trying to accomplish in all areas our community revitalization efforts,” explains Jenkins.
The BPBCC takes its mission seriously of empowering existing businesses and inspiring individuals to start new businesses. One man, seeking a job at the church, was inspired by August, who serves as the BPBCC Chair, to start his own shoe shine company.
“This guy came in and I asked him a question. I said, “You ever think about shining shoes for a living?’
He said, “No. And I do shine shoes!’”
The man started his own company, Shine My Shoes, Inc., and joined the chamber as a member. He is now partnering with another chamber member who repairs shoes.
Stories of networking and partnership alliances abound among BPBCC members, including a female business owner who started a medical transport business and a young man who started a real estate business, shortly after joining.
According the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners, from 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses increased by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the national rate of 18.0 percent.
Black-owned businesses continue to be one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. economy. per a press release statement by Census Bureau Deputy Director Thomas L. Mesenbourg. In addition to creating a strong business community, the BPBCC supports economic growth by empowering young people to explore entrepreneurship as a viable career path. Chamber officials have launched a Young Entrepreneurs Chapter, targeting students in 8th to 12th grades. This program invites students to gain first-hand experience alongside business leaders in the community and introduces them to entrepreneurship.
“Reaching young people is critical,” says August.
Many businesses, such as FACEBOOK or Microsoft, began with a seed of inspiration planted in the mind of a young person.
“We want to nurture that mindset and encourage young people, to not only pursue higher learning, but also invest in their ideas and build their own pathway to success in the future,” says Jenkins.
Since inaugurating 90 charter members in December of last year, the BPBCC is moving forward in its mission to champion African American businesses and businesses of all cultural backgrounds interested in tapping into its consumer base.
“Our goal is to be inclusive, not exclusive, by not only advocating for patronage of African-American owned businesses, but welcoming others from other backgrounds interested in investing in our economic power, as well,” says Jenkins.
In January, the Chamber released its first annual business directory to promote member businesses in the congregation and community.
Since then, they have launched a business webinar training series; provided chamber businesses with the opportunity to participate in a Capital One 16-week businesses training and development program, launched Empower magazine, a bi-monthly business publication, and, in June, will accompany NBCC officials on a mission trade trip to Kenya, Africa.
As Chair of the BPBBC, August sees his position as a complement to his responsibility as a Christian.
“I have a responsibility personally to, not only say, ‘I want you saved,’ but also, ‘I want you living in the fulfillment of what the Word of God says.’ Jesus says, ‘I want you to live life more abundantly,’” says August.
In keeping with the NBCC’s vision of developing a network of church chambers nationwide, the BPBCC seeks to sponsor other churches as chapters and will offer a startup kit that August identifies as “a game-changer for the church today.”
“The hope is to have a church chamber of commerce in every state from Hawaii to Alaska,” says Jenkins.
Jenkins believes the success of this chamber, also, has worldwide implications.
“NBCC chambers of commerce planted around the world translates to international syndication for the BPBCC,” says Jenkins.
August views this possibility as an integral part of the church-based chamber’s mission.
“We have a responsibility to teach the world how to do business,” he said.
Of his experience with this chamber, Jenkins notes, “When you’re doing enough of the right things to glorify God, then God will show up with all the resources you need.”
With this chamber displaying such progress at its onset, there seem to be few limits on its growth potential.
As the BPBCC continues to grow and influence positive change in small business and African-American business, one thing is certain: the world is watching.