The African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, despite what its name might suggest, is not an organization composed of black-owned businesses. Rather, it’s a group of business people of all races who are working to advance the interests of the African-American community.
When John E. Harmon Sr. founded the chamber in 2007, he saw that the need for an organization to address the unique needs of the African-American residents of New Jersey. The statewide Chamber of Commerce had existed for more than 100 years, and was well-established, but there was no such statewide organization dedicated to the needs of black businesses in particular.
“The mainstream community had a model that connected, at the highest level, the government, the corporate sector, and medium-sized businesses all across the state,” he says. “Given the high poverty rate, the high number of sole-proprietorship businesses in the black community, and the high unemployment, I felt that a chamber of commerce was one of the vehicles that we needed in the black community to close those economic disparities.”
The AACCNJ now has more than 700 members, including many non black-owned corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, PSEG, AT&T, and Verizon. Harmon says one of the goals of the chamber is to reach out to the financial sector, corporations, and the government, to help launch programs that help the black community.
The African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey will hold a holiday and networking meeting Wednesday, December 17, at 6 p.m. at the Big Easy, 120 South Warren Street, in Trenton. For more information, visit www.aaccnj.com or call 609-571-1620. Hosea Johnson, chairman of the AACCNJ board, and Harmon will recap 2014 and share their plans for the coming year.
Harmon was born and raised in Trenton. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, but they encouraged him to complete his bachelor’s degree. Harmon says his mother worked in factories and his father owned several businesses, including a trucking company, and encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit in his son. Harmon majored in business at Fairleigh Dickinson and went on to work at Wall Street banks.
He left Chemical Bank in the early 1990s to return to Trenton, where he ran Harmon Transfer Corp., a long-distance trucking company that mainly hauled produce, poultry, and other foods. He was a founding member of the Trenton African-American Chamber of Commerce in 1997. It was around 2003 that he started thinking about the need for a larger African-American Chamber of Commerce and began writing a business plan.
“It’s just amazing to see the progress we have made in all sectors,” Harmon says.
Corporations, banks, and governments have all helped the chamber’s various programs, which are of a somewhat different nature from the mainstream chamber of commerce.
Training: Harmon says some of the chamber’s most successful programs involve corporate training, sales training, diversity training, and workforce training. “There is high unemployment in the black community, a high poverty rate, educational issues, and workforce issues,” Harmon says. “In order for us to be a credible organization, we have to own some of those challenges and be willing to foster relationships and best practices that will mitigate those challenges . that has enabled the African-American chamber to find its place in the marketplace and separate ourselves from other chambers.”
Harmon says the chamber offers job readiness training. “We teach folks how to properly interview and to prepare resumes. We walk them through role-playing scenarios so they have a better shot of getting a job. In addition, we work with the Department of Labor to connect corporations in the financial services sector to job seekers.”
The chamber also holds traditional networking events, such as the holiday party and a speech in Cherry Hill last month by an employee of the Uber car service company.
Bonds: The chamber also has a program in New York City that helps small black-owned construction companies get performance bonds. Performance bonds, issued by banks or insurance companies, will pay to complete a job if the original contractor fails. The better the work history of a company, the easier it is to get larger and cheaper performance bonds.
Many government construction projects require performance bonds, but Harmon says that small, black-owned construction businesses often lack them and are thus left out of potentially lucrative contracts such as the upcoming rebuilding of Trenton High School.
“Often times businesses are not positioned or have proper tools or resources to engage in those opportunities,” he says. “Trenton High is about to come on the marketplace, and it’s a $130 million project. If these firms are not bonded and properly advised with the process of doing business with the Schools Development Authority when it comes to this project, and other projects like it, it will be a missed opportunity. A lot of small businesses don’t have bonds, but I think a higher ratio of African-American and Latino businesses don’t have bonds.”
Harmon says the New York-based program has resulted in $150 million worth of bonds being issued for small businesses, but that he has been unable to get the necessary support for a similar program in New Jersey and that the Mercer County government has not been receptive to the idea.
Education: The chamber also works to improve education for low-income students. Harmon, who is also on the board of a Washington-based charity called First Book, says the chamber distributed 43,000 free books to schoolchildren last March, and plans to work with First Book to distribute 40,000 more across eight community colleges.
“We have forged a strong partnership with many community colleges and four-year institutions across the state. Our leadership program is about working with young kids and exposing them to opportunities so they can make the right career choices. We think this is extremely important to help provide supplemental education across the state of New Jersey.”
Harmon also hosts a radio show Mondays from 5 to 6 p.m. on WPST called the Empowerment Hour, in which he interviews leaders in various sectors about business issues.
The Chamber plans to move to a new headquarters at 379 West State Street in about five months. Harmon says the 5,200 square-foot building will allow the chamber to hold more training and development programs on-site.
“It’s just amazing how the corporate sector, the state government, and financial institutions have responded,” he says. “They have been looking for a good strategic partner from the African-American community, and I believe that’s why the response has been so encouraging. We have demonstrated ourselves to be a credible partner in driving and executing a mission based on economic diversity.”