Why Bracken has made initiative with African American Chamber supporting Black businesses a top priority

CEO of State Chamber wants to ensure Black business community is never again left behind

File photo New Jersey Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Tom Bracken was among those who appeared.

Every person of color knows what it’s like to be the only one of your kind in a room. It takes courage to stand out and maintain composure and grace while establishing to the room that you belong there. It’s something white people, and in particular white men, rarely have to experience.

Tom Bracken, CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, appears to get it.

That’s why Bracken put himself in the uncomfortable seat when sealing the deal for an initiative with the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey two years ago.

It was predictably intimidating – and eye-opening, he said.

“I got grilled pretty well by (John Harmon’s) board,” Bracken said.

Bracken was asked very in-depth and detailed questions about how the initiative was going to be measured and handled, why he was interested in it, and how he would ensure that it reaped any benefits for the AACCNJ and its members.

“They were trying to determine whether we were really serious about this or whether we are doing this as a PR opportunity,” he said. “I don’t remember the length of it, but it was not a 25-minute Zoom call.”

Bracken understood another key point.

“I realized that I couldn’t be the one to lead,” he said. “Because I can read about this stuff, I can hear about this stuff, I can talk to people, they can tell me their stories, but I never lived it.”

Bracken grew up middle class in western Pennsylvania, in a small railroad town with a population of 4,500 people, which comprised of coal miners and farmers. From Bracken’s graduating class of 95 students, only five went to college.

“I was totally unsophisticated, totally unaware of people with wealth – which I ran into when I went into college,” he said “There are barriers to access that are not just the color of your skin, that you have to overcome in your life. And a lot depends on where you were brought up.”

It’s why Bracken understands what needs to be done, and earnestly wants to do make the initiative – announced in the summer of 2020 – succeed.

The goal is for the two groups to work together to address the economic inequities that exist for black citizens and black business owners in the state.

The two organizations will focus their efforts chiefly on creating and enhancing education, entrepreneurship and employment opportunities.


Working together

In the memorandum announcing the initiative between the N.J. State Chamber and the African American Chamber of Commerce, the two chambers defined specific and measurable actions they will take together to achieve their goal. The actions include:

Securing the commitment of businesses across New Jersey to increase economic opportunity for black-owned businesses and black citizens, and to participate in the various programs created to achieve this goal. Businesses that participate will be asked to establish a set of diversity and inclusion-related goals and report progress;

Increasing the number of black business executives serving on boards of directors for the participating companies;

Increasing the number of black business and community leaders serving on the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors;

Identifying contract, investment, mentoring, employment and recruitment opportunities for black-owned businesses;

Creating good corporate citizenship programs that will positively impact the social and economic standing of blacks in New Jersey.


Bracken acknowledged that he has been a part of the problem he is currently trying to solve.

“In my career, especially going back to my banking career, I’ve always been involved in not-for-profits with the Black and brown communities, and the faith-based leaders,” he said. “But thinking about what I’ve done, basically goes back to being much more superficial than really getting my hands as dirty as probably I’d have liked to have done. (That) is where the real difference would be.”

“I’m glad I did what I did, but I probably could’ve and should’ve done a lot more back then. But I didn’t. And now it’s time to make up for that.”

Bracken sees the needed corporate shift.

“I think prior to 3 or 4 years ago, large corporate diversity initiatives were really about donating money to the black and brown community, and not putting a lot of sweat equity into it,” he said. “That’s starting to change.

“Money sometimes doesn’t lead to anything other than, you know, just wheel-spinning and headlines.

Bracken said there needs to be more effort.

“You have to make the money work properly,” he said.

The whole initiative with AACCNJ started during Covid, at a time when the country and the world were reacting to the calls for addressing systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd. Bracken and his team began to dig into data.

“And then after that, trying to delve into it a little bit and find out how really oppressive it is in New Jersey from the standpoint of, you know, the black and brown community not even getting the time of day, and not only not getting work, but even the ability to talk about getting work,” Bracken said.

It was also a time when Zoom was the venue for meetings. Which is where Bracken found himself in the unusual position of being the odd man out while his intentions for being at the meeting were questioned extensively.

It’s a tough position, Bracken said, and not a good feeling when you walk in with sincere intentions only to be viewed critically and doubted.

“That was a little disturbing,” he said.

But what he learned from the grilling was just how much mistrust and suffering has built up over time in the Black community.

“I think what it tells me is that they have probably over the years been misled by, and I think mostly by, politicians who tried to do that,” he said. “And they’ve been told one thing and something different happened. But also, most importantly, they’ve never had anyone step up to do something of this magnitude.”


ReNew Jersey Business Summit

Chamber heads Tom Bracken and John Harmon will be on the opening panel of the ReNew Jersey Business Summit, to be held April 13-14 at the Borgota in Atlantic City.

The event, a replacement for the Walk to Washington, will feature numerous discussions on what problems continue to hold back New Jersey’s economy and what key actions are needed to ignite a full-throttle economic recovery.

Register here.

Bracken knows there still is a way to go to quell the deep-rooted doubts that some are still harboring. He and Harmon are waiting for the initiative to bear fruit and success. But what he learned in those early days of discussions pointed to some very obvious solutions.

“It just kept piling up and leading me to the conclusion that … it makes no sense for these people not to get the same opportunity as the white community, because they do the same kind of work, same quality work, but they’re just not getting the attention that they should,” he said. “And they represent a huge part of the population.

“It was a growing process. And the more I met people, the more I talked to people, and the more I saw these statistics and saw some of the things coming out from the state that were just basically anti-diversity, it just snowballed for me.”

It helped that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was already working on an initiative to help address the inequities, which spurred his partnership with the AACCNJ.

The true test comes now, as the state pivots into a less pandemic-driven mode, and the chamber has to put a spotlight on the initiative as well as focus on its primary mission.

“How much we’ve done during Covid is remarkable,” Bracken said. “And now that that’s kind of lifting, it’ll be interesting to see what takes off.”

Now, it’s about managing expectations and revisiting the direction of some of the programs and pushing forward those that can result in some wins.