RapidChat: Jamiel Robinson

As Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses launches another ambitious #30Days30Dollars challenge, Rapid Growth chats with its founder, Jamiel Robinson, in a candid conversation about economic development, the importance of a robust minority-owned business community, and what this lifelong Grand Rapidian thinks the Ferguson report has to do with his city.
Rapid Growth: With Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, you’re launching another 30 days 30 dollars challenge October 1 and calling for 900 individuals to take the pledge. That’s ambitious. As GRABB and the challenge grows, what kinds of change are you seeing in the community?
Jamiel Robinson: It is ambitious. Some businesses that have benefited are Malamiah Juice Bar and a furniture store, Kaufman Gallery, on 28th Street and Eastern. Sweet Tooth Bakery has seen increased visibility, so has Smell Good Café on Madison and Hall. The first thing is for people to learn about businesses that exist in our community, and it’s an easy and fun way to do that. Thirty dollars for many isn’t a financial barrier or burden – we’re not asking them to spend additional money, just asking them to move money they’re already spending. We’re asking them to support businesses and products and services that they love. We don’t want this to be a one-time, October thing. We want them to make a sustained choice.
RG: What do you say to the person who doesn’t understand why you’re focused on the black-owned business community, the person who wonders why you don’t just get these businesses to join Local First and hope the West Michigan community supports them? Why link it to race?
JR: The reason why I link it to race has a lot to do with the extreme disparities that exist in our community. If you look at all social indicators of success, African Americans are at the bottom – highest unemployment, lowest educational attainment, lowest accumulation of wealth, we only retain two percent of all the dollars we spend for our own neighborhoods and business. Trying to support a community on only two percent of dollars doesn’t leave much for investment for businesses to start up.
It’s been documented that African Americans aren’t able to access capital at the same rate as others, so what do we do? We need access to capital but we also need to support the businesses that exist. If they have a customer base and a good cash flow, they don’t have to take on debt from financial institution. If they go to a bank and request a $50K loan because they’ve done the research, but they only get approved for half, then they fail, did they fail because they were undercapitalized or because their business model doesn’t work? Difficult to tell.
There was a report last year where even for SBA-backed loans, African Americans only received two percent of those loans. Out of the hundreds of millions of dollars, only $23M went to African Americans. So even in spaces that are supposed to be equitable like the federal government, we still see inconsistencies within these systems. That’s why the focus is specifically on African American businesses: because they have a lot of challenges and issues, because there aren’t a lot of places for those businesses to go to get resources and capital.
Within Grand Rapids, certain neighborhoods have 53 percent unemployment. So if we can help the furniture store increase their sales, then the owners may have to hire more people to help with the sales. If we can increase the viability of the business, then they hopefully hire people from the neighborhood.
RG: You and I have talked a lot about “systems thinking” – which makes me think it’s not just about local businesses getting the startup help they need and community support on the individual buyer level, but also about lending practices, access to capital, mentorship, education, living wages, and gaps in outcomes that are all linked together. More than just supporting local minority-owned businesses, what is GRABB trying to do to address some of the broken systems here?
JR: When it comes to small businesses, the biggest issue I see is generational poverty and lack of access to capital. And even employment is huge – not necessarily just in the traditional sense of having a job at General Motors, it’s more so the work of The Right Place: to attract these very large businesses and corporations. Typically when you have these large companies and they pay extremely well, then the employees of those businesses have great salaries and that creates disposable and discretionary incomes so they have more choices.
So the overall issue with the small black business community is that there are no black-owned industries. So we don’t own tier two, tier three businesses that employ 50 or hundreds of people being paid great wages, people who are able to spend and support businesses from their neighborhood and community. So the overall system has to address access to capital for people who want to start or purchase businesses that are at that scale. When you have a “rich uncle,” he’ll give you the capital to start any kind of businesses you want. Some will be great and some will fail but it’s the opportunity to have the capital. It’s paternalistic, the way that capital is accessed. Banks like low risk but due to historical realities African Americans for the most part weren’t allowed to accumulate and grow wealth, so it can't be passed down generationally and we have very few “rich aunts and uncles” we can get a loan from. So we have to create capital within our communities.
Some of the greatest economic gains for African Americans have come from co-ops. So I’m putting together GRABB’s first conference, The Shift, and it’s going to talk about neighborhood development and economic development with a specific focus on the power of co-ops. We have to look at those old models; during segregation, people pulled their money together, started a grocery store, had a neighborhood taxi service. After desegregation, when we could spend our dollars at the same diner counter, we saw little value in having our own because we wanted to assimilate with the larger society. So that played a role – we don’t have our own industries.
RG: I’m curious why you decided to have GRABB be a for-profit company and not a nonprofit.
JR: I always give nonprofits credit – they’re the most efficient at spending one dollar. They can stretch one dollar halfway around the world. But after that dollar is spent, it isn’t recreated. Whereas at a for-profit, through hard work and hustle, you can turn one dollar into two or five, so the opportunity for exponential growth is why I chose for GRABB to be for-profit.
If you look at Wealthy St, Cherry Street, it didn’t look that way when I was growing up in the ‘90s; it was a totally different environment, and it changed because what happened was they stopped working from a social service lens – homework help, food pantry, giving people fish every day but nothing was empowerment to where people could learn how to fish for themselves. People need to be able to buy the lake that the fish are in. It’s good if you can fish, but it’s better if you can own the lake and provide the opportunity for others to fish. You can be taught to fish, but what if you don’t have access to the lake? If we don’t have equitable access to the opportunities we still haven’t really addressed the issue of equity and self-sufficiency.
But now on Wealthy Street people provided public investment as well as private investment and it was economic development, it wasn’t social services. So GRABB is a for-profit so we can set our own agenda. So when I see things that need to be done, I don’t want to be restricted. I want to be able to use capital however I want. I want to be like a doctor and be able to prescribe what’s necessary for an entrepreneur depending on what they need. I don’t necessarily want to be controlled by donors or a board.
I look around: I’m 32 now and I don’t see any sustained success from where I come from. I grew up in the 3rd ward of Grand Rapids and I don’t see any sustained African American success. I can’t point out a building anywhere and say it’s an African American-owned industry or company. So for the last 30 years, what have people been doing? I tend to not think I’m special or gifted; if I see this, don’t others see what need to be done? With it being 2015, I know I have more access than generations before me, but people had to have seen the need for economic development.
RG: I’m thinking about the Ferguson report, which found that police brutality isn’t a problem that exists in a bubble – it’s tied to education disparities, systemic racism, lack of economic opportunity, housing, etc. What would you like to see Grand Rapids do to make Grand Rapids more equitable for everyone?
JR: There are so many issues and challenges within the community, I could work on this for the next hundred years – it’s nationwide. From the Ferguson report – if you took the name off you could think it was Grand Rapids. The reason you haven’t yet seen the type of breakdown you saw there as far as rioting or protests is because Grand Rapids is so philanthropic. If you were to take away those dollars being pumped into the community, people would experience a level of discomfort that they haven’t been aware of or seen.
Let’s say on your own and through the typical social services, they’re designed to last 22-25 days and there’s 30 days in a month. If you’re at 25 days you begin to go hungry, you can’t pay your electric, you realize it’s dire, you get agitated and that will lead you to action. But here in Grand Rapids, your earned income plus social services will get you to at least 21-25 days and the rest helps you get to day 29 so you only experience potential homelessness, you’re in a space where you’re always in survival mode. Where are you going to get your next dollar? Do you have $1.50 to get the bus to your job? If you’re at work, is there food at home for your kids? You’re constantly searching around for resources to sustain your living. People don’t have time to sit back and assess where they really are.
I talk about my childhood: half of my life I lived pretty comfortably, the other half I lived in poverty, and I lived in an area where that was the norm; when you’re in a group of all birds that look like each other, you don’t know. When you begin to compare and you see in the Baxter area average annual income is 19K per family when the median in Kent County is 70K then you realize, man, we are way behind.
I wonder how much giving has gone to 49507 and think: instead of being poured into social services, if those dollars were invested in creating economic opportunity, where would 49507 be today? So if we were to switch that thinking, how many positions can we fund? How about we subsidize you hiring new staff to increase your business, or we’ll invest in your façade, we need to start putting our dollars in differently? Would it look like a Wealthy Street? Or would it look more like downtown?
I’m also working on developing a black business corridor to have density of businesses in order to keep dollars within a community. There’s already a density of residents in Baxter and Southtown area so we have to make sure that the businesses there align with what the neighbors want to spend their money on and create a mandate for businesses to give back in one way shape or form. Because the businesses there currently don’t reinvest; the vast majority don’t live in the neighborhood so they take it back to wherever they live. The vast majority of the businesses within predominantly black neighborhoods aren’t owned by people of color. Think of all the corner stores: you go in there for milk because you don’t have transportation to a bigger grocery, there are fewer options and lower quality, and all those dollars are leaving the community. If owners don’t care about the vitality and health of the community, they drain the community’s resources and capital. So that has to be addressed through business creation from people or a “come to Jesus” meeting with the owners and say we need you to be more involved here or we will no longer patronize you. 
But I am hopeful that change is coming or I wouldn’t be doing this. I would have looked at everything and said you know what, I’m just gonna move. I’m the guy who goes to the well and brings the water back – information and knowledge – because I have access to a lot of different tables and try to share it as much as possible. What’s the point of having knowledge and information if you’re not going to share it?

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
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