African American Chamber caps progress with ‘Chamber of the Year’ honor

By Anjalee Khemlani
New Jersey/Washington, D.C. | Jul 27, 2018 at 7:20 am

He’s been fighting the perception for years, but it still persists.

“The perception is that black businesses don’t have the wherewithal to vie for opportunities,” said John Harmon.

“Many of New Jersey’s CEOs are under the false (impression) that black folks, in 2018, still want a handout. What we are doing as an organization is pushing back on that perception, because all we want is a level playing field and the opportunity to compete.”

Over the years, Harmon, CEO and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, has fought to gain recognition as a business leader for the African-American community in New Jersey, and fight to get small black-owned businesses a seat at the table to bid for contracts.

“I think the way we’ve started to dissipate that false perception is to invite executives to our office, to meet with these people around the table, and share with them their capabilities,” he said.

His efforts have paid off.

AACCNJ was recognized as the best among all chapters of the National Black Chamber of Commerce at an annual event Tuesday in Washington, D.C., earning the title “Chamber of the Year.”

“This work is not easy,” said an emotional Harmon in a phone interview Thursday. “We’ve run an organization that is somewhat nontraditional. Every day, we are pushing back on perceptions. The organization has matured right on the public stage.”

Harmon, a banker by trade and the son of a trucking company owner, has been with the chamber since its inception in 2001.

Since then, he has grown its membership, despite the struggle of the community’s habits.

Harmon has previously said it is tough to get the African-American community to consistently back the organization in ways that other, close-knit minorities do for their chambers.

“The struggle is still present,” Harmon said.

Despite that, the recognition in recent years at the state level — one of the biggest champions being former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno — has helped boost the chamber, he said.

“The lieutenant governor and the legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, that worked collaboratively were very helpful in elevating the chamber in the last few years,” Harmon said. “Whether it was the lieutenant governor, or Tom Bracken (CEO and president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce) or Michele Siekerka (CEO and president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association) — these are household business names. The fact that (people) have seen me in the same circles, that has helped elevate our profile.”

In fact, Bracken released a statement Thursday in support of Harmon’s chamber.

“This recognition is a reflection of the AACCNJ’s strong advocacy on behalf of its members, and it is a testament to John’s solid leadership,” Bracken said. “In addition to the great work John Harmon does with the AACCNJ, we value the contributions and perspectives he brings as a member of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.”

The turning point for the organization came during the previous administration of Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie signed the surety bonding bill in 2017, which directed the state Economic Development Authority to help small businesses secure surety bonds, making it easier for a more diverse pool to bid on state and federal work — and that was when things began to change, Harmon said.

“To have a Republican support something from a black organization was a paradigm shift,” he said.

And the new administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has “picked up right where the previous administration left off. The difference being, this time around, we are not being championed by the lieutenant governor, we are being championed by the governor,” Harmon said. “It’s very different than the previous administration.”

And now that the chamber is on the radar, others are on board to champion the causes he advocates for.

Going back several years, Harmon recalls reintroducing himself to key figures on a regular basis.

“Now, today, when I walk in the room, for the most part, there is someone in that room who knows me,” he said.

Harmon hopes that, now, with this recognition from the national chamber, AACCNJ can engage even more people and ensure better diversity of contractors.

“Some corporations in New Jersey are still looking at supply diversity from the mosaic perspective. They are just checking off different ethnic groups, versus under the auspices of value proposition. That is what we are bringing to the marketplace,” Harmon said.

Harmon has previously served as head of the National Black Chamber, in 2014.

Harry Alford and Kay Debow, who incorporated the National Black Chamber in May 1993, have grown the organization from 14 chapters to more than 200 in 40 states and 50 nations, making it the largest advocacy group for black businesses in the world.

Alford touted Harmon’s efforts at the annual event Tuesday.

“We remain confident that the leadership of our chapter in New Jersey continues to be stellar. We are proud of John Harmon’s dedication and tenacity,” Alford said.

Harmon said he was humbled, but happy to see the progress.

“Each and every day, I feel as though, when I’m at meetings or at events or just engaging folks, there is a different level of awareness, appreciation and respect,” he said.

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Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem