A.G. Gaston Conference 2018: Economic Empowerment Through Enterprise Development

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

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