PULLMAN — Gov. Bruce Rauner came to Pullman Tuesday to promote a new effort that as far as anyone can tell is aimed to boost the clout of poor, minority entrepreneurs in hopes they might be more successful navigating the racial inequities that exist in big business and banking industries that have been controlled for generations by rich white men.
Rauner, a white multimillionaire capitalist with considerable clout, didn’t directly mention race to explain the benefits of his Advancing Development of Minority Entrepreneurship pilot program.
He put it this way: “We are jumpstarting minorities' entrance into the web … of business relationships that gets transactions done. Minorities haven’t been in the ... network.
“You can call it the Old Boys Network or whatever you want. It’s relationships of past success that drives future success; we have to jumpstart minority entrepreneurs into that web, into that network. That’s what this is about.”
UrbanDictionary.com defines the “old boys network” that Rauner refers to as the “informal system by which money and power are retained by wealthy white men through incestuous business relationships. It is not necessarily purposeful or malicious, but the 'Old Boys Network' can prevent women and minorities from being truly successful in the business world.”
One reporter asked the governor if he could be “candid about why … capitalists have not ventured into the hood before now?”
Rauner again didn't mention race. He said, “Um, it’s higher risk. It’s higher risk. The risk-return tradeoff isn’t as favorable as going right back to Silicon Valley, again. That’s why. That’s a fact. We want to change the risk profile by this initiative, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Then, there came a question that turned the news conference about an unfunded state pilot program with vague goals such as creating a “a positive ripple effect in their community and across the state” into an uncomfortable talk about what minority business owners are actually up against.
“Aren’t we talking about racism?”
Jimmy Odom, a senior policy adviser of Minority Business Development under Rauner, answered the question because it was in his “purview.”
Odom, a successful African-American entrepreneur, honed his business strategy at Tech Stars, a startup accelerator program that helped him raise $1.2 million for his online delivery service “We Deliver," which he later sold to a Silicon Valley competitor for an undisclosed amount.
“It doesn’t escape everyone that Jimmy is a minority, right? Imagine that going into a venture capitalist firm in Chicago for the very first time. Not ever growing a company, what that experience was like. If there was racism it’s not blatant,” Odom said.
“I’m not going to be able to determine whether or not you’re being racist against me to invest in my company. I can’t gauge that. I can’t quantify that. But what I can do is build an organization so attractive to you that no matter what I look like you’re going to want to be involved in it. So why banks historically have not been investing in minority companies, to the governor's point — risk profile, not racist profile.”
Odom got interrupted by a follow-up question, “What’s the difference?”
“That’s a good question. I’m not an academic. … I couldn’t answer that,” he said.
Don’t blame Odom for not being an academic with a grasp on how racist lending practices, real estate redlining and generations of government disinvestment helped cripple poor minority parts of Chicago.
It’s difficult for anyone to talk publicly about how a perfect storm of discriminatory banking, government disinvestment and racist real estate redlining still plagues poor minority communities in Chicago, Peoria and Rockford, which were three of the top 10 spots on 247WallStreet.com’s 2015 “Worst Cities for Black Americans” list. (Illinois ranked No. 3 on the website’s “Worst States For Black Americans” top 10 list.)
Odom explained the entrepreneurship pilot program amounts to an information and networking “hack” to get around obstacles blocking minority entrepreneurs, whether quantifiable racism has anything to do with it or not.
You could say the pilot program that will pick about 15 entrepreneurs this year — which doesn’t include the promise of state grants or guaranteed loans — aims to help minorities nobody sent.
The irony, of course, is that after getting elected last year, Rauner proclaimed “I’m the nobody nobody sent,” a bit of Chicagoese coined by Abner Mikva to describe an outsider untainted by the politics of clout.
And on Tuesday, the governor explained the importance of the entrepreneurship program as an opportunity — and “money follows opportunity.”
“You’ve got to understand how capital is accessed, or you’ll never get access to capital. If you go yourself, you’ve never been in business, you’ve never had a company, you don’t have any relationships and you call US Bank, they might talk to you, just to be polite. They probably won’t, but they might,” Rauner said.
“If you’ve been screened [by the entrepreneurship program], if you’ve been given advice, you’ve assembled a board and some mentors and a counselor and a couple other executives who have been there, done that and you get an introduction to US Bank, let me tell you, you are getting attention. I can’t promise you’ll be getting a loan, but you are seriously in the game to get attention and get financing.”
There's no doubt our governor understands the interworkings of big business clout.
So when Rauner says minorities nobody sent generally aren't worth the risk for the Old Boys Network, you've got to believe him.
And if that's the case, it's a problem that needs a solution to making Chicago a better city and Illinois a better state for black and brown people to call home.
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