“When the second round of (the Paycheck Protection Program) came out, I heard from the CEOs at all of those banks,” Harmon said. “Not someone in the loan department, but the CEO. They said, ‘John, if you have people applying for PPP loans, send them to me.’
“So, I said, ‘Who is the contact person you want me to run them through?’ They said: ‘I’m the person. If anyone needs help, send them directly to me.’
“My mouth dropped wide open.”
Harmon, the founder and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, has been coming upon this situation a lot lately. Or, a lot since the death of George Floyd in May 2020 sent shockwaves through the country and brought responses on social equity and social justice from just about every company in the country.
We wanted to see if the desire to help — the commitment to diversity and inclusion — is still strong, more than nine months later. Harmon said it is. Stronger than ever, in fact.
And it’s not just banks — or the Economic Development Authority, which is consistently creating new programs. These are private-sector companies looking to help. Looking to change the way they do business.
Harmon points to Stryker, which makes medical and surgical equipment, including limb replacements.
“We talked to them about creating a program with NJIT that helps make more Black students aware about the career opportunities in STEM — and connecting them back to their organization,” he said. “They’re interested in our leadership program that we’re doing in Irvington with high school students. They’re interested in hiring folks and contracts.”
He pointed to Joe Jingoli, the head of the Jingoli construction company, who is getting Black-owned companies on his projects, many of which are multiyear efforts. He pointed to the utilities, which are doing the same.
Harmon pointed to Johnson & Johnson, a company the chamber already had a strong relationship with.
“Now, they’re looking to go deeper,” he said. “They’re going to sponsor a leadership program in New Brunswick for high school students. And we’re talking to them about another program that we’re doing in Trenton around families and getting families as a whole in a better place.
“And we’re talking about, how do we get more Blacks contracted in their supply chain? We’re having real discussions about that.”
Harmon said the African American Chamber of Commerce has four main goals:
- More seats on boards;
- More government contracts;
- More jobs;
- More investment in corporate citizen programs.
The chamber’s bigger goal is this: To have a Black business community that is ready for these opportunities.
“We have a staff meeting every day — and I remind the staff every day that we have to have five-star customer service,” he said. “We need to follow up with everybody.”
On both sides of the introduction, Harmon said.
“We’re making introductions for any member that needs an opportunity, and we’re following up to keep both sides engaged,” he said. “Both sides can drop the ball. We’re making sure we keep folks engaged.”
Harmon said complacency is his biggest concern.
“We’re constantly reminding our members: We have their attention, this is not the time to take this for granted,” he said. “You have to come with your ‘A’ game every day, because we now have the audience. There are folks who are looking to hear from you. We have to take advantage.”
The connections are there.
The chamber, which usually attracts 50-75 new members a year, essentially doubled that pace last year. And it’s on pace to top that mark this year.
It’s keeping the chamber on its toes. That’s OK, Harmon said.
“We’re working around the clock,” he said. “On the weekends, I’m still getting emails from staff — late at night. They’re engaged. And we’re trying to uphold our side of the deal. Because you can’t be asking folks to do this and do that and just be waiting to sit back and cash checks.
“We want to earn our checks. We want to earn that investment. And we want to give them a return. And that’s what’s happening right now.”
Harmon has been around long enough to know that not everyone talks the talk. He was expecting that to be the case this time. Most often, it hasn’t been.
“This is different,” he said. “It’s real. Because of that, when I’m on the phone with someone that is not really serious or engaged, I remind them of what other folks are doing.
“And, I’m also respectful. If this is something that you’re not really looking to do or committed to do, that’s OK. Let me get on the phone with somebody that is.”
They have been easy to find.
A while back, before Floyd’s death, about two dozen companies signed pledges to increase their diversity and inclusion programs — and relationships. Harmon’s group wrote them all letters, asking to talk.
Campbell Soup called him right away. And now, they’re talking about programs they can do with the chamber.
Harmon doesn’t mind reaching out. He’s looking for connections for his members and his community. That’s why he reached out to John McWeeney, the president of the New Jersey Bankers Association. Access to capital always has been a top issue for entrepreneurs from underserved communities.
“I have to give John a lot of credit,” Harmon said. “I told him what we needed, and he was on it. The response from his members has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Harmon said his chamber always had a few banks as members. Investors, he said, has been one of its strongest supporters. Now, that total is closer to 20. And it comes with commitment.
Harmon goes back to those phone calls from the CEOs.
“Each call was the same,” he said. “It kind of took me aback a little. I can understand them having a representative calling and asking, ‘What can we do?’ Now, it’s the CEO of the bank calling.
“It’s very different now.”