On January 20 millions of people across the country celebrated what would have been the 90th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (AACCNJ) continues to recognize the efforts of King more than 50 years after his assassination by implementing and promoting initiatives intended to make an often pallid business communities more multichromatic. The Trenton-based AACCNJ will hold its annual black-tie awards gala on Thursday, February 6, at 5 p.m., at the Palace at Somerset Park in Somerset. The gala, the organization’s 10th, will include video remarks from Governor Phil Murphy and a keynote address from Dr. E. Lance McCarthy, CEO of Ferguson/Global 1000 — a grassroots organization to help rebuild and restart the city of Ferguson, Missouri, after the controversial police shooting of an African-American man in 2014. Tickets are $250, $225 for members. For more information or to register, visit www.aaccnj.com.
The AACCNJ will honor four people for their contributions in the areas of education, community, business, and politics, including long-time state legislator Shirley Turner. Others slated to be feted include: Lawrence Hamm, civil rights activist and founder of the People’s Organization for Progress; Jay Morrison, CEO and founder of Tulsa Real Estate Fund; and Yla Eason, assistant professor of professional practice at Rutgers.
For John Harmon, CEO of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, the success, growth, or demise of a small business is a political matter. Harmon, a businessman and Trenton native, founded the Chamber in 2007 after recognizing the need for a statewide organization to advance the interests of the black business community. He drew on the experience of having established the Trenton African-American Chamber of Commerce in 1997.
His roots as a businessman go back to his father, who ran several businesses including a trucking company. Although neither his father nor his mother, a factory worker, earned college degrees, they encouraged him to do so, and instilled him with an entrepreneurial spirit. After graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson, where he majored in business, Harmon worked for Wall Street banks. In the early 1990s he left Chemical Bank to return to his hometown, where he founded Harmon Transfer Corp., a long-distance trucking company.
He was also a banker at United Bank of Philadelphia for several years.
He also delved into politics, running for mayor of Trenton in 2005. Harmon says he was prompted to run by what he believed was the lethargy and inaccessibility of the mayor at the time, Douglas Palmer. He finished in third place that year and ran again in 2010 only to be defeated by Tony Mack. Harmon has not revived his political career since then.
Harmon says it is not so much about becoming an elected official as it is important for entrepreneurs to have a thorough understanding of and access to legislators.
“Frequent networking and engagement with political and business leaders at the local, state, and national levels is an essential element for entrepreneurs,” Harmon says. “It’s as equally crucial for those legislators to make themselves available to those business owners.”
For minority and women-owned business enterprises, success and sustenance stem from the foundation laid by late civil rights leaders like King and a lengthy list of entrepreneurial predecessors — including Madam C. J. Walker, the first African-American millionaire. Last year the AACCNJ became one of just a handful of national chamber organizations to be recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. The organization received a three-star accreditation for its policies, effective organizational procedures, and effective and pervasive community impact and influence.
Harmon says the commendation is a highlight of his more than decade-long tenure at the helm of the AACCNJ. “We are determined to push back on adverse perceptions both within New Jersey and across the country about African Americans and our ability to add value to the free enterprise system in America,” Harmon says. “The accreditation is a testament to the our commitment to excellence and advancing the mission of our organization.”
In addition to leading AACCNJ since 2007, Harmon was installed as chairman of the board of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) in 2014.
Currently the AACCNJ has more than 700 members, including major corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, PSEG, AT&T, and others.
The organization has initiated several pieces of legislation under the administrations of Murphy and former governor Chris Christie. For example, the Holistic Urban Building (HUB) program was established in 2014 to, among other things, partner industry leaders and social innovators together with nonprofit and grassroots organizations to create new approaches to community growth and problem solving. Other legislative efforts include executive level and staff development and training programs; a small business bonding readiness assistance program; and ongoing discussions to bring the long-sidelined Gateway Tunnel Project through NJ Transit to fruition.
“I encourage my fellow New Jerseyans to be mindful that we are better as a state when we embrace diversity and inclusion through a level playing field,” Harmon said.