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March 4, 2024

West Hartford Chamber’s Minority Business Network helps improve organization’s diversity

HBJ PHOTO | DAVID KRECHEVSKY (From left) Financial adviser Chris Clarke, chair of the West Hartford Chamber’s Minority Business Network, with chamber CEO Christopher Conway.

Chris Clarke is pretty blunt about why it’s significant for the West Hartford Chamber to have a committee called the Minority Business Network.

“It’s very difficult for somebody to ask for a seat at the table if they don’t know the damn building is there,” said Clarke, a financial adviser with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, who chairs the committee. “I feel like we’ve done a very good job of putting the neon sign in the alley saying you need to stop in here to see what’s going on.”

The committee, which was formed during the pandemic, provides minority-owned businesses with a way to ensure their voices are heard. Yet, chamber President and CEO Christopher Conway said it has also had a discernible effect on the organization overall.

“You can look at photographs of chamber events going back six, seven, 10 years, and look at photographs of chamber events last week, and it’s completely different,” Conway said, referring to the diversity of those in attendance. “It has become part of the DNA of the organization in a relatively short period of time.”

A review of websites for the state’s 65 chambers of commerce finds just a short list of similar committees or programs focused on minorities or minority-owned businesses.

The MetroHartford Alliance has a Racial Equity & Economic Development Committee. The Greater New Haven Chamber has a Diversity & Inclusion Council, and New Haven is also home to the Black Business Alliance.

The Southern Connecticut Black Chamber of Commerce, based in Bridgeport, serves businesses in that city, as well as in New Haven, Norwalk and Stamford.

The approximately 540-member West Hartford Chamber, though, did not have a committee focused on minority-owned businesses until four years ago. That’s when Clarke and some other chamber members of color spoke up.

Clarke said he had lived in West Hartford for more than two decades but had never been to a chamber meeting. He knew the town had a diverse population — minorities, including Asian, Black and Hispanic/Latino residents, make up roughly 28% of the town’s population, according to Census data — but he had his doubts about the diversity of the chamber’s membership.

“In my head, I asked, ‘Do I want to hang out with a bunch of stodgy old white dudes?’ And not because they’re white, but because they’re stodgy, and it’s an old boys’ club,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily believe that I would fit in.”

That opinion changed somewhat when he attended his first chamber meeting. “While there weren’t a lot of people of color in the room, everybody was incredibly supportive and incredibly welcoming,” he said.

After joining the chamber, Clarke was a leading figure in establishing the Minority Business Network in 2020.

He wrote a proposal for its creation and presented it to the chamber’s board, which not only embraced the concept, but gave the committee’s chairman a permanent seat on the board’s executive committee — a seat at the table.

Colorful conversations

The Minority Business Network was created within just a few weeks of the start of the pandemic, delaying implementation. But the decision was eventually made to move forward with programming, even if it had to be virtual.

“When the George Floyd situation happened, we convened the committee via Zoom to start creating programming,” said Conway, who started as the chamber’s executive director in 2018, and has made diversifying the organization a key pillar of its strategic plan. “That was the first catalyst for getting everybody together to start having real conversations.”

The chamber was also approached by Charter Oak State College to help convert its annual Shea Lecture on economic disparity to a virtual event. With the help of the chamber and Minority Business Network, the lecture became a three-part video series.

And, because participants wanted to continue the conversations begun by that series, the Minority Business Network created a program called Colorful Conversations.

“It essentially pulled together a panel of experts or experienced people to discuss situations that impact communities of color,” Clarke said. “The first one we decided to do was on the impact of elections on communities of color.”

As karma would have it, the event was held Jan. 7, 2021, the day after the attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. All the state legislators who participated in the Minority Business Network event had been sworn into office the day before, Conway said.

Colorful Conversations, which now is held quarterly, has since tackled a variety of topics, from access to technology and health care to food insecurity. The conversations are open to anyone, though nonmembers of the chamber pay a little more to attend.

The programs also are streamed live, and are available to view online.

Another program Minority Business Network offers is called Masterminds, which brings together a group of people to “walk through and talk through a point of frustration” for a business owner or manager.

Conway said these meetings are arranged on an ad hoc basis, and are not limited to members of color.

Minority Business Network also holds an informal monthly gathering at Luna Pizza on Farmington Avenue in town. The gathering is held the first Friday of every month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“It’s a great way to get introduced to the chamber at large,” Clarke said.

An ‘incubation pool’

While the Minority Business Network has proven successful, both Clarke and Conway said it was difficult, at least at first, to convince minority business owners and managers that it was needed.

“You will find that a lot of minority-owned businesses — whether it’s a Black-owned business, an Asian-owned business, a Latin-owned business — very often, they don’t want to identify themselves as such,” Clarke said. “Because they don’t want to be known as the ‘Black’ plumber, they just want to be known as a plumber.”

He added that he has experienced racism as a financial adviser of color. “My colleagues don’t know what it’s like to have somebody schedule an appointment online, walk in and see that Christopher W. Clarke is not Caucasian, turn around and walk out,” he said.

That may explain why many minority-owned businesses don’t “identify themselves that way,” and why the network has become an important part of the chamber, Clarke said.

“I look at it as the incubation pool for the broader chamber,” he said of the Minority Business Network. “It allows people of color to dip their toes in the water and see that everybody’s really nice, really welcoming, and wants you to succeed. And it’s introduced in a way that’s kind of familiar and safe.”

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