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Opinion: Let’s rip the labels off minority-owned businesses

Eyes & Ears

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Surprisingly, only nine minority-owned businesses in Springfield are registered as such with the state of Missouri.

Now, I know we’re not a city known for diversity. Civic and business leaders are working on that, along with our lackluster inclusiveness. But I’m sure in our city of 170,000 people there are more eligible businesses than that, so it begs the question of why.

The Minority Business Enterprise program through the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity exists to assist minorities in obtaining state contracts, “economically empowering traditionally underserved communities and improving the overall fiscal vitality of the state.”

The program objectives sound strikingly similar to a source’s comments during one of my recent CEO Roundtable interviews. I’m speaking of Springfield architect John Oke-Thomas.

As I questioned him about the challenges of operating a business as a minority in Springfield, Oke-Thomas talked about the economic pie of the city.

“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,” he said during the interview, from which excerpts were published Jan. 27 in the Minorities in Business Focus section. “Then there’s no reason for people to start struggling to get their own share.”

Oke-Thomas has a strong voice in the matter. He’s a black man who’s operated his architecture firm in Springfield for 23 years. Unfortunately, during that time, he’s secured more business deals in the Kansas City and St. Louis markets than in Springfield.

Oke-Thomas and Associates Inc. is one of the nine MBEs registered with the state. It’s clear why.

Another black man at the interview table disagreed with Oke-Thomas. Terry Edwards, owner of Ascension Protective Services LLC, considers the state and federal business programs designed for minorities as a leg up he’d rather not have.

“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,’” Edwards said. “I prefer you to judge me on my work and as a man.”

To Edwards and others, it’s a label. As labels can do, there are negative connotations.

The SBJ newsroom saw this recently, too, in our research for the Largest Minority-owned Businesses list. A couple of ethnically diverse business owners declined to complete the survey sent to them. I get it – they are concerned about the label.

I don’t like that. Any of it.

How can our business community move past the labels and associated fear? I look at that list and the minority programs as opportunities to showcase quality work. When the work stands on its own, word will spread. And hopefully the mouths will shut who say, “You got that work because … .”

I like the way Justyn Pippens looks at the issue. If Springfield businesspeople want to raise the economic vitality for the city with an eye on diversity, a company’s hiring strategy is key. Pippens, a staff member for the Minorities in Business networking group, says removing the ceiling on minority hires would grow their profile throughout the city.

“You have to put people in positions to where they can attract other people to your organization,” Pippens said in an SBJ interview published Jan. 27. “If all of your diverse people are in low-level positions, you can’t see nothing past that low level. You can’t be it, if you can’t see it.”

As more minorities are placed in business leadership, I can see the acceptance and appreciation levels rising, along with more confidence for minorities to start and grow their businesses. Whether they want to use a state or federal program is up to them. But no one should make that decision based on fear.

For the record, here are the eight other MBEs registered with the state, in alphabetical order: Advanced Lawn Care & Fertilizer Co. Inc., Apoyo Development LLC, dlb Foods LLC, Fulnecky Enterprises LLC, Kojo LLC, Panfilo Garcia Masonry LLC, Pratt Consultants LLC and S.I.S. Paint Inc.

Now, start ripping off the labels.

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson can be reached at


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