jill-rahman:-create-a-better-chicago-by-investing-in-black-businesses

Jill Rahman: Create A Better Chicago By Investing In Black Businesses

For more than 30 years, I guided businesses and brands built for growth and profit. Now I work for an organization focused on social change — specifically, ending hunger. Along the way, I’ve participated in many well-intentioned programs aimed at creating diversity in our suppliers of goods and services through the use of minority-owned businesses. And while supplier diversity practices have been a step in the right direction, the stark inequity in our nation and our city calls us to do more.

The racial wealth gap in Chicago is staggering and shameful. A 2020 study from Northwestern University found that for every $1 of wealth accumulated by white families, Black families have just 1 cent and Hispanic families have just 8 cents. In a different analysis, Northwestern University economists estimate that food insecurity affects Black and Hispanic households in the Chicago area at double the rate of white households.

In recent months, traffic at local food pantries has been up 20% from the prior year, averaging more than 200,000 household visits per month across the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network. While persistent high food prices and a shrinking federal safety net are contributors to the rising need, the roots of the problem go much deeper and are long-standing.

To measurably reduce poverty, food insecurity and related injustices in Chicago, we must confront and address racial disparities head on. We need to intentionally invest in the populations and communities that have endured generations of inequity.

Business diversity starts with the basic principle of supplier diversity — seeking out minority-owned vendors — then goes much further. Business diversity is about a commitment to spend with minority-owned businesses in higher margin services, including but not limited to financial services, legal services, marketing-communications and consulting. It leads to transformation and sustainability for the contracted business and the community.

Even under strong economic conditions, Black and brown businesses face significant barriers to success. Discriminatory lending practices still limit access to capital and credit. Outdated procurement processes often award valuable contracts to well-connected competitors. Inadequate public transportation and infrastructure deficiencies hinder retail traffic. Cultural and language barriers present other challenges for immigrant-owned businesses.

There is an enormous benefit in seeking out and spending money with local Black- and brown-owned companies. Business diversity programs lead to new jobs, wealth creation, skill building and new investment in business infrastructure. For the food depository, this has become a critical pillar in our mission to end hunger across Chicago and Cook County.

In May, the food depository was asked to provide daily hot meals at city-operated shelters for the growing number of asylum-seeking new arrivals. We said yes but knew we needed help. We quickly began contracting with local Black- and brown-owned restaurants and catering companies to scale up the availability of high-quality, culturally affirming food. In that moment, we saw an opportunity to meet the growing crisis while directing every dollar we spent on meals back into Chicago neighborhoods.

By the end of last year, the businesses we partnered with were providing 18,000 hot meals every day across 21 shelter sites — more than 2 million meals over eight months. This work was possible thanks to state funding and the generosity of private donors.

As a result, more than $17.6 million was directed to small, local businesses like BJ’s Market and Bakery, Catering Out the Box, Irazu, Rome’s Joy Catering, Nuevo Leon, Carnitas Uruapan, Jarabe and others. For these restaurants and caterers, the work was transformational. Many owners reported doubling their monthly revenue, erasing debt, purchasing new equipment and adding more jobs.

This collaboration with local businesses to feed new arrivals also showed how we can support our newest neighbors while simultaneously guiding resources to communities that have endured historic disinvestment. We don’t need to make a choice between serving migrants and helping lifelong Chicagoans — we can do both.

There’s a common misconception that working with a small, local vendor will cost more than choosing a national or international corporation. In our experience, this isn’t true. The local Black- and brown-owned restaurants and caterers we worked with supplied hot, high-quality lunches and dinners in a competitive range of $6 to $8 per meal, including ingredients, labor, delivery and supplies. And the customer service was exceptional, as these kitchens created special menus and recipes to fit the diets of new arrivals.

By taking an intentional approach to work with local Black and brown businesses, we met our objectives while contributing to Chicago’s future. When a small minority-owned business succeeds, the positive impact goes beyond the owner’s bottom line. The business itself can be an anchor for the surrounding community — creating job opportunities, generating local tax revenue and strengthening neighborhood identity.

This is a replicable approach that local government, businesses, nonprofit organizations and even consumers can embrace. The next time you need a product or service, reach out to a small minority-owned business. And if you already have a supplier diversity initiative, make the effort to develop a culture of business diversity.

Jill Rahman is chief operating officer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. She has spent more than 30 years as a business executive and board director in food products and consumer packaged goods.

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