Jayne Armstrong

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the many achievements of African-Americans throughout history. For me it is much more personal.  It is an opportunity to reflect on the woman who inspired my lifelong advocacy of small business — Madam C.J. Walker, the iconic woman of color business owner and America’s first self-made woman millionaire in the early 1900s. 

More than 25 years after my initial research, I continue to be inspired by the obstacles she overcame to build her beauty and hair products company, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company into a prominent national company. The mentor who introduced me to her legacy in college also taught me the most important lesson in life — that you can never influence change by sitting on the sidelines. 

Little did I realize that those lessons would impact me so much during my first year in Iowa.  As I listened and learned from small business owners at business events across the state, one major issue always stood out — the lack of diversity at every event. It was very obvious to me that African-Americans are inadequately represented among Iowa small business owners, and there is a huge disconnect between the events themselves and the needs of the existing African-American business community. 

A recent study conducted by 24/7 Wall Street ranks Des Moines and Waterloo among the 10 worst cities in the country for African-Americans, based on a number of socioeconomic factors. Until we address the racial disparities facing two of our largest cities, our small business economy will continue to be impacted.

A 2014 Businessweek study also ranked Iowa as the worst state for minority businesses, with only one minority-owned small business for every 43 minority residents. In comparison, Florida ranked first with one business per 11 minority residents. African-Americans continue to be one of the most underserved of Iowa’s small business markets, representing only .8 percent of our business population, compared to 7.1 percent at the national level.

Too often I hear these statistics dismissed as a population issue, as African-Americans represent only 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population. The statistics speak for themselves, and it is time we work together to create an inclusive economic environment throughout Iowa.  

As the director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Iowa Office, I take ownership of these studies and the issues impacting African-American’s small business success. The SBA is committed to working more closely with community leaders, the faith-based community, fraternity and sorority alumni groups and business organizations to support more small business start-ups and expansions. 

Access to capital remains one of the biggest barriers to small business success for African-Americans. In an effort to begin to address the issue, the SBA recently created the SBA Top Lender Award for Minority-Owned Business. It is a small step, but a step in the right direction.

Corporations and government agencies also can play a major role by evaluating their procurement policies and supplier diversity programs. In addition to large contracts, small purchase credit cards can have a significant impact on local small businesses, especially minority, women and veteran-owned firms.

It is time for all of us to get off the sidelines and influence change by creating a more inclusive business environment. Iowa’s economic future depends on it.

— J­ayne Armstrong is the district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Iowa District Office, with offices in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.