Minority Owned Businesses On The Rise In North Carolina

Oct 12, 2015

The dark cloud of economic recession has a silver lining for North Carolina employees. A recent study by The Institute in Raleigh, confirms that a diverse number of businesses are hiring. These career fields are vast, but they all have one thing in common; they are minority owned firms. Sarah Finch has more on this demographic shift and its impact on the economy.

We all know a recession is not a good thing, but sometimes good can come out of it. This rings true for Gudell Ward, a minority business owner and eastern North Carolina native.

“I think the recession has helped folks zero in on what their skills sets are, and allowed them to chase work that they can really maximize their return on profit.”

His company, IMEC Group, LLC., founded in Jones County, now specializes in project management, engineering & construction services for local, state and federal clients.

“My dad and brother had a construction company, probably about a 4 or 5 man operation, and they weren’t doing anything. And so my thoughts on that were let’s pursue public projects, and that’s what we did. And we’ve basically doubled the workforce since 2008.”

Inspiring stories like Ward’s, are becoming increasingly common according to a recent study by a non-profit management consulting firm in Raleigh called The Institute. The organization has focused on business and economic growth through effective business diversity for over 30 years.

The Institute’s Founder and Senior Fellow Andrea Harris says their most recent report, using U.S. Census Bureau data, found that minority-owned businesses within our state are rebounding. Its analysis reveals that African-American owned firms expanded their employee numbers at a higher rate than white employers’ businesses.

“Naturally there are more white firms than there are African American-owned firms. But the white firms added employees at a rate of 1.7 percent, and black-firms were adding employees by 9 percent, over that same period of 2007 to 2012. Well that is tremendous because we’ve gone through a recession during that same time.”

These don’t seem like normal statistics during an economic downturn. Why would hiring increase as the times got tougher? In order to find an answer, Harris worked closely with the Institute’s Policy Center, which identifies current trends and analyzes demographics. According to their research, the recession prompted people to explore all their options.

“I think that as people found themselves in positions where they were working fewer hours, or they got laid off as corporations cut back, they had to figure out ways to sustain themselves and their families. And so a number of people went into business. And some people who were in business started looking at what other value can I bring to the market place? Are there opportunities for me?”

Nearly 30 years ago, when The Institute was started, the government and community leaders recognized then that globalization, shifting demographics and technology were changing the game. Business owners were expanding and diversifying their employee base, replacing traditional industries with new ones that require different skills and success strategies. Harris says she has personally seen these social and economic transformations.

“Technology and transportation in particular are the two arenas that opened up a global marketplace. The other place that I think that we’ve seen some changes is just in how people do business. So if I am a business person and I’m going to do business with a major corporation. Then it’s not just me going in to meet you, I have to bid electronically.”

This kind of computer automation now appears much more frequently in workplaces across North Carolina. For Kevin Thorne, Founder & President of

Best Diamond Packaging in Kinston, the addition of a robotic arm in their manufacturing process has greatly increased the company’s efficiency. Thorne mentions it has also saved them a lot of money and it never asks for days off. He went on to say that in order to compete on a global scale, his minority-owned business has embraced the technical side of production.

“How we interact with our customers, there’s a lot more online, a lot more use of barcodes and things of that nature. A lot of things that streamline the time that it takes to see how much inventory is in their entire system. A lot of technology has come along of late that has helped us provide them with better service.”

While they may be selling an everyday commodity like napkins, Thorne says that every customer is important. And the business relationships he forms with clients like McDonalds and Wendy’s, are beyond color and race. Thorne explained it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white or polka-dot, good business is about dependability, quality, responsiveness and fairness.  

“Of the seven or eight of us in my office in management positions at least four of us are African-American. Which makes sense in my company but that’s indicative of the fact that these folks are qualified and they’re capable and they’re readily available in Kinston. And you know I think there’s more of that going on. I think there’s more folks that are out there of African-American descent who are getting educated, getting the skills they need to compete and getting the opportunity to compete.”

The most recent calculations, from the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau, show that North Carolina is home to 184 thousand minority-owned firms. In that same year, they contributed $23.5 million dollars in economic output and created over 156 thousand jobs. To help people navigate these promising waters, The Institute has a comprehensive strategy to expand and diversify North Carolina's business base. Harris adds that it is less costly to invest in the economic development of communities than it is to respond to the negative social consequences of economic isolation.

“People are regaining confidence in the economy and building more relationships across lines of race and gender. You know when people gain confidence, that’s just an unquantifiable plus.”

And many times that confidence comes with business ownership, which is one of the most proven strategies to create prosperity. With this in mind, The Institute is helping employers to gain access to market opportunities and financing. Over the course of the last ten years, they have awarded minority-owned businesses in the state, between 50 to 80 million dollars a year.

“We’ve seen a number of changes in eastern North Carolina. While we don’t have the number of major corporations, you still have the pharmaceuticals, you have the seafood and agricultural industry, and you still have a need to move the goods and services. So transportation and trucking is a big thing in the east.”

Other workforce transitions emerging in eastern North Carolina include construction, secondary road maintenance bids, establishing solar farms, and the expansion of healthcare providers. These and other minority-owned businesses often have a direct impact in under-served communities. Harris believes this is the silver lining aftermath of a very hard economic downturn.

“I think that while the downside of the recession was just the loss in net-worth and the loss of jobs. I think the upshot of it was, people were willing to take greater risks. And that resulted in increased numbers of businesses.”

From a recession to a horizon of possibilities, our state is growing, hiring and learning to change with the times. Engaging significant untapped segments of the population has become a business and economic imperative that will ultimately bring people together for a greater cause  prosperity across North Carolina.