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CEO Roundtable: Minorities in Business

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Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson discusses doing business as a minority with Terry Edwards, owner of Ascension Protective Services LLC; Angel Kim, co-owner of ReRico Brazilian Grill and The Hill; John Oke-Thomas, owner of Oke-Thomas and Associates Inc.; and Nirav Patel, co-owner of Comfort Inn & Suites and Bombay Bazaar.

Eric Olson: What’s one word that describes what it’s like to be a minority business owner?
John Oke-Thomas: How about two words: exciting and challenging.
Terry Edwards: Interesting and challenging.
Nirav Patel: Competitive.
Edwards: I agree with that in my business, too. Our area is saturated.
Angel Kim: Humble and privileged.
Olson: Does anybody want to elaborate on their word?
Patel: The reason I said competitive was because the hotel business is where the market gets saturated very easily. There’s so much competition; there’s so many flags people can choose from. Just off the (Interstate) 44 corridor, for example, there’s maybe 20-25 hotels. My other business, which is an Indian grocery store, being the second in town because there is one on North Kearney, that one is not as competitive. … That’s why I’d say an exciting opportunity for me to bring something new here. A lot of people are excited that we are here.
Edwards: With my field, it’s very saturated with different security companies. And with different security companies come different downfalls. If one company does something, you have to make up for what that company does. Especially as a minority, you have to make sure you are perfect to a certain degree. But you also have to live off your word. I’m a very old-school businessman. I believe if you’re going to have a relationship with your clients, you have to go see them. I think that’s where business has fallen off. You get successful and you can forget how you made it there. We have gotten [to be] very successful. We have grown. I have 50-60 employees now from where I started with just me. I started with $50 and a 2005 Crown Vic that had over 300,000 miles on it. Now I have 14 cars, 50 employees and I’m in three different cities. Six years. You grow that by having those personal relationships.
Olson: How did the rest of you guys get started in business? What’s your story of getting established and why you do what you do?
Kim: I was young when I moved here. The first restaurant we opened, I was only 18 or 19. Argentina Steakhouse over on Republic Road. I’m from Argentina, and I wanted to bring something that was familiar for me, but different for Springfield. I was received very, very well. We did it for about 17, 18 years. I had a lot of good help through relationships. Then, of course, back then there was not that much competition. Now, it’s overwhelming competition.
Oke-Thomas: I started my business about 23 years ago in Springfield. After working for several architectural firms here in town and working for another architect in California, I came back to Springfield to start my own business. When I say it’s exciting, it’s because, more or less, you’re in a business whereby you have the energy and you have enthusiasm to do what you want to do, which is the good part of it. The challenging part of it is cultivating clientele and making sure that the clientele are getting what they are asking.

Facing racism
Olson: Based on your race and your heritage, have you experienced any racism?
Oke-Thomas: I think we all kid ourselves if we say no.
Edwards: That would be like a joke. It’s how you deal with it. I go with the old saying that one door shuts, you keep walking. Nobody stops you. You can use racism as an excuse to not build your business. If you use that as a crutch, your business will fail. I don’t use it as a crutch. I use it as strength. I’m from deep West Virginia. I grew up watching the [Ku Klux] Klan. I’ve seen the Klan right up and down my street in the hoods trying to scare us – as a little kid. So, fear? I don’t have any fear. My success and my failure (is based) on how I deal with it. Not by what another man does.
Olson: That’s a very stark picture, and I appreciate you sharing that. Do you feel like the environment has changed in that regard, and especially in southwest Missouri, or do you still face some hurdles?
Oke-Thomas: The environment is changing. I wouldn’t say that we were so different than in 1996 when I started. It may be a little bit different in a hotel because you see a hotel, you don’t care who owns the hotel.
Patel: I wouldn’t say that.
Oke-Thomas: I’m just saying it’s a little bit different.
Patel: Yeah.
Oke-Thomas: I’ve been in a situation where my project manager and I went into a meeting. And my name is John, the name of my business, John Oke-Thomas and Associates, and somebody turns around to my project manager saying, “When did you start your business?” Well, no, wait a minute. How ridiculous can that be? It’s like you don’t exist.
Olson: I hear in that a blatant unacceptance.
Edwards: It’s strong here.
Oke-Thomas: I don’t mean to denigrate southwest Missouri, because it’s everywhere. But that being said, you have to find a way to recreate yourself in order for you to succeed in this environment. I’ve been here for at least from a business standpoint 23 years, but the majority of my business is either in Kansas City or in St. Louis right now. I’m one individual that travels three, four times a week in order to be able to sustain that business.
Olson: Has that been a gradual thing as you’re building your business or at what point did you go out of market?
Oke-Thomas: When I started, I was very lucky in the sense that I built a relationship with Drury University. There were a lot of projects that we did for Drury. So, I felt the need to begin to build local relationships. When Drury stopped building, we have this library of work that we’d done that we thought was just going to be easily transferred to the local market. It didn’t turn out that way. The question becomes what do you do when it doesn’t turn out that way? Do you stay and keep banging your head against the wall or do you look for other markets? We made the strategic effort to develop other relationships in other markets and that’s what has kept us in business for this long. And then you have to readapt yourself. Just because somebody says no to you does not mean that you should just sit back and fall off.

Branching out
Olson: Has anybody else had to look outside of the Springfield market for business because of some resistance?
Edwards: I had to because of some of our competitors. They low ball just to get a contract and people go with the lowest money. Just because you’re saving money don’t mean you get the best quality. We’ve had to expand. We’re in Branson, and then we moved into St. Louis. We do a lot of body guarding. We just did Jordan Gibson; we’ve got Stedman Graham. We’re specializing in another field that I don’t want to put in there because I’m sure my competitors read this. [Laughs] We’re using that to branch out. I’ve dealt with the same thing. I’ve walked in with my wife, same last name; my wife is white. I’ve actually had one say, “Oh, so, your boy right here.” Excuse me? But hey, I realize where I’m at. If you let that stop you, just like John said, you’re going to constantly be hitting your head against the wall. So, we have to branch out to a certain extent. My whole thing is to have at the end of my company say Worldwide, not just LLC.

Needed change
Olson: What needs to change in southwest Missouri to get past these issues that you have faced in your business in terms of racism and blatant unacceptance?
Oke-Thomas: I cannot compare 1996 to 2020. There has been changes over the years, albeit slow. Part of what we try to do is to encourage people coming behind us to say, these are the challenges that you have and this is how we have dealt with it. You pass on those messages. That was part of the reason why we started Minorities in Business. When we started, it was myself, Lyle Foster and Wes Pratt, and we were sitting down making the same conversation we’re making today. The economy of Springfield cannot survive if every individual within Springfield is not participating.
Olson: When was that?
Oke-Thomas: We started out almost 10 years ago.
Edwards: I remember coming to the very first meeting. (John) is a lot of things that a lot of younger black men don’t have. We don’t have that older mentor.
Oke-Thomas: Are you saying I’m old?
Edwards: I’m not saying you’re ancient. [Laughs] I’m 50 myself, but at the same time John has been in business here, so going and asking John, “How do you get around this rock?” As a minority, you have to go to other older minorities and figure out, in this area, how do you succeed. You see a lot of younger minorities, the ones that are in trouble, saying, “Well, I failed because they put me in a position.” No, you failed because you didn’t try.
Oke-Thomas: As one who feels the community has a responsibility to make sure the economic growth of Springfield is spread around to where every citizen of Springfield has the chance to benefit from that … part of my job is to make sure that we hold the citizenry accountable to making sure that those economic opportunities are open to all. Part of that is making sure that we’re not fighting for what we think we should get, but we are advocating for what we think we should get. In the process of advocating, you have to build relationships. The ultimate responsibility of city government is to make sure that the economic pie gets bigger. Once you make the economic pie bigger, then there’s no reason for people to start struggling to get their own share. That has been my message to city leaders. It’s been a struggle. It’s been a little bit of push and pull, but I think ultimately the conversation is taking place. There has been progress. Twenty years ago, I could not talk to the city manager because he had no time to have that conversation. Today, I can walk into the city manager’s office and have that conversation.
Olson: Why is it a struggle? What’s the counterargument?
Oke-Thomas: It’s not so much a counterargument. It’s actually no argument at all. The leadership of Springfield at the time, they don’t feel like they have the responsibility to minorities in Springfield. It’s more dismissive than anything. When you have the mayor of the city basically saying that I have nothing to do with what happened in 1906, so don’t bother me with it, you’re basically dismissing a group of people that felt very strongly about what happened in 1906.
Olson: Referring to the public lynching?
Oke-Thomas: Right. From that standpoint, there’s really not a conversation that would take place because you have basically dismissed a segment of your base. There’s been progress. Part of that is sitting down like this and having these one-on-one conversations. You want to take care of your family just like I want to take care of my family. I want my children to be better citizens just like you want your children to be better citizens. If we look at it from a human level, it changes the conversation. It’s no longer them versus us. How do we make sure that we continue to move forward together?
Olson: Because you could leave.
Oke-Thomas: The choice is always there. If I leave, then what? I’m not being arrogant by saying that. It’s just a question of somebody has to be here to say let’s look for another approach. Let’s have this conversation. There has to be. In the 1980s, there’s 5% of students in Springfield Public Schools [who] are minorities; today they have 25%. We have to recognize that we are all in this together. You cannot dismiss 25% of your population. Who knows what we’re going to have 20 years from now.

Progress made
Kim: It’s totally different in restaurants. It’s not that you look (whether) an Asian owns it or a Spanish owns it, they just come for what we serve and what kind of quality customer service we can provide. Going back to the questions before on racism, back in 2001 when we first opened this restaurant, the people that we serve, I probably serve more Springfield and surrounding smaller towns and they go out to eat and they probably have never seen an Asian before. Back in 2001 to 2004, probably half of the people that used to come, they’re like, “So why are you here? Why are you at Argentina Steakhouse?” I have to explain my background: I’m actually Spanish. When we opened ReRico in 2005, probably half of the people that used to come into Argentina, only half of that started asking why are you doing a Brazilian restaurant? Things were changing in a good way; they were being more accepting. Now in 2016, I opened The Hill, Italian restaurant, I hardly ever get people asking me, “What is an Asian doing in an Italian restaurant?” [Laughs] Maybe 2% compared to what it was in 2001. I try to blend in where I live, and I just want to be part of it. I don’t see myself being different than anybody, because of the field that I’m in. I’m just part of this community just like anybody else.

Earning a way
Olson: Do you feel like diversity gives you a leg up in any way?
Edwards: I’d prefer not to have that leg up. I prefer you to judge me on my work and as a man. I hate that because people use that against you: “Oh, you got that loan because you’re a minority.” Or “You got that job because you’re a minority.” No, I got this job because I have the background, I have the experience and this is my field, and I worked damn hard to do what I do. That’s the one question I hate, because that’s the (thought): “You got that because you’re black.” No, I got this because I worked hard.
Olson: There are federal programs that will help in that regard, from the Small Business Administration.
Edwards: Don’t need it.
Oke-Thomas: That’s where we differ.
Edwards: But John, you’ve seen me build mine from nothing. I have no bills on my company.
Oke-Thomas: I have absolutely no problem with you building your business by yourself and God bless you. Here’s where I have a difference on that. Black people have been in this country for over 400 years. This program started about 50 years ago, and the whole idea was to give African-Americans an opportunity to at least climb the ladder, so to speak. We’ve been complaining about this now for at least 20 years. So technically, after about 400 years, you now have an opportunity to at least equalize the playing field, and yet we start complaining about it. We’re not even giving it a chance to survive. … Can anybody tell me here that racism does not exist anymore in this country? If you cannot tell me that, then somehow, someway, we’ve got to have some ways to where people can be able to rise. The last 50 years has produced the greatest number of black middle class and part of the reasoning for that was because they were given that opportunity to get to where they are. If we can do it for another 50 years, we may not be having this conversation.
Edwards: My biggest issue is that racist people use that against us. I hate that. No, I got it because I’m smarter than you, I’ve got more experience than you and I earned it. They use our own programs against us. I believe the program should be here. I haven’t jumped on it because in my field of work, it gets used against you.
Patel: How long do you think it will take before we get there?
Edwards: I don’t think racism will ever end because racism is taught. It’s taught from generations on down.

Excerpts from Features Editor Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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