Harmon challenges public, private sectors: Are you ready to make difference in black business community?

Head of African American chamber: ‘We have the right environment to do it, we just need the will to get it done’

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | Jun 19, 2020 at 3:00 am
Editor’s Desk

John Harmon said he’s thrilled to see there has been acknowledgement of the issues that have held down black businesses — and black communities — in the state.

He said he’s happy there have been financial contributions and statements of support. And he’s delighted that, today, many companies and elected officials will recognize Juneteenth — the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States — in ceremonies and with proclamations.

But here’s what the no-holds-barred founder and leader of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey really wants: He wants to know if you’ll be there tomorrow — and if you really are ready to make a difference.

That’s it, that’s the whole thing,” he said. “This is a daily thing that we have to be focused on. It’s not just for an emotional period. Black issues in this state exist 365 days a year.”

Don’t be confused: Harmon said he’s seeing a lot of good things right now.

Companies that have been engaged with his chamber are asking how they can do more. And more than a dozen that never have been connected are reaching out — and, often, the outreach is coming from the CEO level, which has significance.

Then there’s this: Harmon said the head of the New Jersey Bankers Association, John McWeeney, has asked for information about companies involved with the chamber, so he can disseminate it to his members. The bankers also are going to have Harmon on a webinar to discuss one of the biggest needs in the black business community: acess to capital.

“I’ve never had that request,” Harmon said. “I’ve never had that platform. So, that’s a real positive. What we’re experiencing is very encouraging. But is it for the moment, or is this a sustained engagement? That’s to be determined.”

Harmon, simply put, is tired of waiting.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said all the right things, but Harmon wonders why it took three years to release a disparity study on economic opportunities for underserved communities that everyone has long acknowledged to be an issue.

“That should have been out in Year One,” he said. “From a state perspective, the public sector still has not stepped up and fully owned their underperformance in this area.”

Harmon said it’s time for elected officials to act. And time for them to do it in a big way.

“We need a seismic shift in public policy and public sentiment to bring black people forward, like the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “New Jersey needs a major policy move. We need somebody with the will in this current environment to force that paradigm shift, because the interest is there.”

You want specifics? Harmon’s got them. Murphy has promised some major announcements to coincide with Juneteenth. We asked Harmon to give us three things he feels would help black businesses. Here’s his list:

  1. Increase contract opportunities for black businesses immediately.

“The state, the county and the municipalities must increase contracting at all levels and in every area — from professional services to goods and services,” he said.

“And there needs to be a transparent process of holding folks accountable to the goals. The state of New York has said 30% of public contracts must go to minorities and women. New Jersey does not have such a policy in place.”

  1. A push from the private sector.

“Corporations should commit to a certain percentage of blacks on their boards and in senior leadership,” he said. “I don’t want to put a number on them, but, if you’ve got zero, you have to try to get to one.

“If you’re not supporting black business with contracts, you need to be. That should be a no-brainer today. Companies then need to move on increasing workforce development, financial literacy, training for ex-offenders. Those are areas where I believe corporations should be using their dollars.”

  1. A big push from the governor.

Whether it’s with the bully pulpit or by executive order, Harmon said Murphy needs to be more forceful in leading the charge.

“What I believe is happening is the governor is saying it, but it’s not being implemented and executed in an appreciable way,” he said. “The numbers bear out that more has to be done. We don’t want to discount what they’ve done to date — especially at the (Economic Development Authority). We commend them for that, but there is so much more that has to be done. The administration can make a bigger impact.”

Harmon sees the value that the black business community brings. And it’s not about feel-good statements or checking boxes, it’s about the value-add and bottom-line revenue a more diverse workforce and contractor base brings, he said.

Many companies in New Jersey already get it, he said — pointing to Public Service Enterprise Group, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Johnson & Johnson, Investors Bank and Wells Fargo as organizations that should be copied.

“That five needs to become 25,” he said.

And, if it takes a push from the governor to get it done — it’s time for that push.

Harmon points to an executive order Gov. Jim McGreevey signed — one that has proven to be a big help for unions to get government contracts. Isn’t it time for such a thing for companies of color, not to mention women-, veteran- and LGBTQ-led groups, he asked.

“The diverse community in the state of New Jersey is not getting their fair share, period,” he said. “It’s just not. The numbers show it. And they show blacks are at the bottom. At the end of the day, the business in the state does not align with the diversity of the state.”

Harmon is growing tired of fighting a fight that others get a pass on.

“Certain interest groups get what they want, but black people have to protest and have to demonstrate over and over again about why we feel as though we are not getting an equitable share,” he said.

Harmon said he also is growing tired of kind words that aren’t followed up by action.

“There’s no time to be making apologies,” he said. “It’s time to right the ship.

“We have the right environment to do it, we just need the will to get it done.”