University of Utah students focus on diversity in innovation

Story and photo by TREVOR RAPP

On Jan. 8, 2013, the University of Utah was ranked as one of the “top institutions in the country for startup formation,” according to the latest survey by the Association of University Technology Managers released in December 2012.

“Startup formation is in our DNA,” said Bryan Ritchie, director of the U’s Technology Commercialization Office, in a news release.

The genetic complexion of business innovation has significant meaning for one U student. He is not just a business innovator, he is a black business innovator.

“Black-owned businesses are, especially where I’m from in Lake City, Fla., a rare commodity,” Enis Henderson said.

Ennis Henderson, UofU student.

Ennis Henderson, UofU student.

Henderson is part of a research innovation class that tasks students to research opportunities to improve local or national communities.

“I chose the problem that was near and dear to my heart, which was trying to improve the quantity of black-owned businesses in America,” Henderson said.

While contemplating his project, Henderson’s mind stretched back to Lake City, Fla., where he grew up. He described it as a “Mayberryesque” town where the white people lived on one side of the tracks and the black people on the other. There he gained his first working experience “doing the jobs no one else wanted to do” like picking the tobacco, corn, peanuts and melon grown in his community.

When he was 22, he got his first lesson in owning his own business.

That lesson came from a casual conversation with a white insurance agent. After “taking a liking” to each other, Henderson said the agent explained that he took his two sons out to cut wood and then bring it into town to sell it. Each time they made a sale they would subtract their revenue from their operating costs to calculate their gross and net profits.

“That was the first time I had heard the words ‘operating expenses’ and ‘gross profit’ in the same sentence,” said Henderson, “and I said ‘Wow, how old are your boys?’ and he said ‘7 and 9.’”

“You aren’t born with an innate sense of how to do business,” Henderson said. “Someone has to teach you, or you have to go out and learn it. And if those people who don’t own businesses never had anyone in their family to take them by the arm to say ‘let me show you how to do this’ … and if they’ve never seen it or heard it — odds are they won’t do it.”

And recent statistics are showing that when compared to other minorities, African-Americans are not doing it.

According to “Black (African-American) History Month: February 2013,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau News, the black population, whether of mixed or non-mixed backgrounds, is 43.9 million. This represents an increase of 1.6 percent from the April 1, 2010, census.

Nevertheless, in a separate 2007 Survey of Business Owners conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that only 1.9 million businesses out of 30 million were black-owned.

For Salt Lake City, black-owned businesses are only 2.7 percent of the almost 24,000 total businesses, according to the U.S. Census QuickFacts.

These numbers haven’t been lost on Henderson. As part of his project he researched statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and IBISWorld.com, a database of industry-based research.

As he spoke, Henderson pointed to various charts from those sources as he explained that while blacks outnumber the most profitable minority, Asians, by about 3-to-1 by population, they own about the same number of businesses. Even more surprisingly, Asians were making about three times as much profit.

“It’s completely inverted,” Henderson said.

Henderson isn’t the only person who has noticed a lack of diversity in local businesses.

Most African-Americans who come from the South or the Midwest don’t want to come to Utah because of the stigma that Utah has of not being a diverse community, said James Jackson III, founder and executive director of ACCEL (African-Americans Advancing in Commerce, Community, Education, and Leadership), a nonprofit organization providing resources to African-American small businesses in Utah.

Neither Henderson nor Jackson point to current racial prejudices as the current cause of the problem. However, the “genesis” of the problem is deeply embedded in the history of slavery in the United States, Henderson said.

For Jackson, the most pressing need is increasing the level of education for all Utahns. Jackson was appointed by the governor to the Utah Multicultural Commission, an advisory group for issues relevant to local minority communities. “The main song that was sung through [the commission’s various] committees, whether it be health, education, corrections, economic development, all of them leaned toward education in some way,” Jackson said.

Those numbers are reflected in the April 1, 2010, US census as well, with only 18.4 percent of blacks reporting having earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 1.6 million blacks reporting having earned an advanced degree.

And the effects are real. The annual median income for black households declined by 2.7 percent from 2010, making it almost $10,000 less than the national median income for families, according to “Black (African-American) History Month: February 2013.” The U.S. Census Bureau News also reported a 27.6 percent poverty rate among blacks, almost double the national average.

For Henderson the answer is availability of resources. “What I recognize is that it’s a lack of information. Now there’s a ton of information out there on the internet there are types of agencies people can go to to get information. But they don’t know what to ask for if they did go to an agency,” Henderson said. “They’ve never been informed. The resources are there but they don’t know what it is, they don’t know what it’s for.”