By Robert Dickerson, Jr.
Established in 2004, the A.G. Gaston Conference has evolved and become a think tank event with broad conversations and discussions about economic empowerment. On February 20-21, 2018 hundreds of people will convene at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex to hear from advocates, experts, business and community leaders as they share stories, advice, and their passion to drive “Economic Empowerment through Enterprise Development”. Several of those stories will be about the man for whom the conference is named, iconic business magnate, A.G. Gaston.
As has been practiced since its inception, the conference recognizes the contributions of state and local leaders who, like A.G. Gaston, found needs and filled them. The A.G. Gaston Conference serves many needs in our community. Recognition of contributors, focusing on empowerment, and bringing people together to celebrate Gaston. But, as importantly, the conference speaks to the need to elevate entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. As we look to build and transform communities we must value, support, and hold business owners in high esteem. In communities of color it is more critical as we are still playing catch up. Successful businesses that employ citizens, add value, contribute to our causes and influence our culture are vital elements. Our economic empowerment is enhanced and inextricably connected to our enterprise development.
Dr. Stephen Craft, in a position paper written for the 2007 A.G. Gaston Conference asked, “What would Birmingham look like if Blacks reached economic parity in business – that is, Blacks owned businesses at a rate comparable to the community at large? The economic impact could be more than 43,000 new jobs and a $700 million increase in the area’s payroll, hypothetically.” In 2017, those figures would certainly have increased, however the fact that then and now, “economic parity and wealth-building is vitally important for the Black community and the community as a whole, especially in today’s global economy”. That also supports the premise that further study of the issues surrounding economic parity and the need to cultivate Birmingham’s African American entrepreneurs is of paramount importance. Former UAB Associate Professor, Dr. Vickie Cox Edmondson, wrote “Black entrepreneurs can gain a strong and effective voice in Birmingham’s business community. But first, they must do more to increase their stakeholder influence by improving their economic viability, increasing their visibility, and exercising their voice. Cooperation is a business imperative for Birmingham’s black-owned businesses to reach economic parity”. Her paper, written for the 2006 A.G. Gaston Conference outlined influence-building strategies to build cooperative relationships among African American entrepreneurs, churches, colleges and universities, banks, government, and other stakeholders who want to stimulate and promote business, commercial, and job development in the African American community.
According to Vickie Howell, Editor in Chief of Birmingham View Magazine and author of the Conference’s first scholarly paper, “Economic disparity is the clearest remaining vestige of racism.” Clearly, the A.G. Gaston Conference was organized to address issues related to the plight of Black owned businesses in Birmingham, Alabama and beyond. Gaston, born to former slaves in Alabama’s Black Belt, started and grew several business enterprises that became so successful that, in addition to employing hundreds, educating thousands, insuring thousands more, earned him the distinction of being named ‘Entrepreneur of the 20th Century’ by Black Enterprise magazine. Gaston, humble in both demeanor and background, followed and promoted principles that encouraged thrift and discipline. Simultaneously, he was crafty, ingenious and tenacious, building an empire of enterprises that were both vertically and horizontally integrated.
This year’s conference will feature noteworthy speakers with national acclaim. Headlining the lineup a re Andre Taylor, Ramon Ray and Maggie Anderson. Taylor, an influential force in modern entrepreneurship regularly appears on television news presenting tips along with speaking on the psychology of entrepreneurship. In addition to being a popular speaker, Taylor provides his audiences with concrete solutions to overcoming tough times using his own life, career, and entrepreneurial experiences as lessons. His straight talk focuses on why you can endure during the most challenging moments in life and come back in a big way.
Ray, publisher and editor of Smart Hustle Magazine, making his second conference appearance in as many years, provides practical advice via an upbeat presentation that keeps his audience excited and engaged. Other than Ray, few people have been invited to the White House to present to the President's staff; testified to Congress; graduated from the FBI Citizens Academy; or have worked at the United Nations. Journalists looking for input on stories, as well as business owners looking for help will benefit from hearing Ray. He has started four companies and sold one and has years of hands-on experience in marketing, sales, personal branding, technology and more.
Maggie Anderson, no stranger to Birmingham, is founder of the Empowerment Experiment and author of a critically acclaimed book, “Our Black Year”. Anderson’s passion and commitment to growth of African American firms and communities is not only evidenced by her experiment, but comes through as she motivates, inspires and challenges with her message. The Empowerment Experiment resulted in a landmark Kellogg Foundation study that proved that millions of jobs could be created as a result if increased support of African American owned businesses going a long way toward fixing the American economy. Like Anderson, conference organizers and participants realize that the social impact of growing and developing African American owned businesses in Birmingham would be far reaching. The increased concentration of wealth in Birmingham’s African American community, as it does in all communities, could serve as a catalyst for advancing social good. Likely benefits include a stronger education system, better anti-poverty measures, higher employment, lower levels of crime, improved community stability, as well as increased investment in social, cultural, and artistic institutions. Again, according to Dr. Craft in a previous conference publication, “No community can effectively sustain a system where there are many more people involved in consuming than participating in production. Because of the sheer size of potential human capital left unrealized, it is challenging to construct a model of sustainable long-term market growth for Birmingham that does not include an increased concentration in African American business development. In short, until Birmingham engages the greater community in creating wealth through a functional, healthy, and inclusive business community, the city and region will be competing in an increasingly global market with one economic hand permanently tied behind its back".
The conference spans two days, February 20-21, 2018. Additional information, including a link to register for the conference, is available at www.aggastonconference.biz.