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Networking group supports minority professionals

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Imagine walking into a client’s office armed with 18 years’ of expertise and experience and seeing the client become a little unsure, even less confident, at the sight of the color of your skin.

While that might seem far-fetched to local businesspeople, it’s a common experience for architect John Oke-Thomas, owner of Oke-Thomas & Associates Inc., 1972 E. Chestnut Expwy.

“The surprise and the shock are always there,” he said. “You don’t necessarily see a black architect in Springfield.”

Partly as a result of the those receptions – which Oke-Thomas emphasized weren’t the result of racism as much as inexperience – Oke-Thomas in 2009 helped launch the networking group Minorities in Business, working with co-founders Lyle Foster, owner of Big Momma’s Coffee & Espresso Bar, and Wes Pratt, interim equal opportunity officer at Missouri State University.  

Inclusion for all
The group aims to serve as a resource for advice, networking and education to support minority-owned businesses in Springfield to help them survive – and ultimately flourish – in a town that is more than 90 percent white.

“The mission statement is basically advocacy for minority business,” Oke-Thomas said.

Membership is open to people in all types of businesses, and members don’t have to be minorities.

“Just because it’s a minority organization does not mean it’s strictly for minority businesses,” Oke-Thomas said.  

Both Foster and Oke-Thomas are members of the Springfield branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which focuses on research and education, addressing instances of discrimination as they arise.

The local NAACP, which is led by President Francine Pratt – who is married to Wes Pratt – lent its support to establish Minorities in Business as its own entity.

Francine Pratt said NAACP serves all historically excluded groups, a term she said is preferred to minority, and includes women and the gay and lesbian community, though federal guidelines on what constitutes a minority aren’t always so inclusive.

“The common issue is being interested and concerned about the purpose of MIB,” Foster said.

A conversation in mid-2009 between Oke-Thomas and Foster was another impetus for launching Minorities in Business.

“I just told him some of my observations, and my reflections, and my concerns,” Foster said.

“Obviously, we all recognize … the significantly low percentage of minorities or diverse people in Springfield,” he added.

Among Foster’s concerns, he said minority businesspeople may not enjoy the same access as others to community support such as mentoring. It also may take them longer to learn how to interact and connect within the business community, resulting in confusion or isolation.  

But that’s where Minorities in Business enters the picture. The first meeting in October 2009 drew about 20 attendees, and there wasn’t a very detailed agenda, Foster said.

“It’s kind of like, you know, you have a party and you don’t know who’s going to show up,” Foster said. “We weren’t going to try to drive something that the community did not want.”

Minorities in Business now reports about 50 members.

Focus forward
Minorities in Business was officially incorporated this spring, and a membership directory and Web site are in the works.

“We’re moving from grassroots to really a more structured organization,” Foster said.

A dues system also is being developed, though there is currently no cost to join Minorities in Business.

Support through Minorities in Business includes help with writing business plans – Oke-Thomas said some entrepreneurs need help broadening their target demographics – and leads for community events.

Minorities in Business meets on the first Tuesday of every month at Q Enoteca, a wine bar Foster owns on Commercial Street.

During meetings, those interested in getting involved with Minorities in Business can get a feel for how the group works, join the mailing list and explore ways to get involved with supporting the minority business community.

The organization often enlists speakers for its meetings to share their experiences with business through a minority lens. At the July 5 meeting, Oke-Thomas said the group will host Shawn Calhoun, head of the human resources division at Springfield-based Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., and the first woman to serve on AECI’s management team.[[In-content Ad]]

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