By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
The third annual International Athene Black & Brown Business Summit will be held April 20-21 in West Des Moines. The summit will include virtual sessions for national and international attendees. This event was created to elevate business owners of color, help them connect to customers, network with other business owners from across Iowa and the world, and to find helpful resources. “This helps amplify the great things business owners are doing but not getting recognized,” says one of the founders, Angela Jackson of Athene, the corporate host since the summit began in 2020. Jackson worked with Katherine Harrington, President, and CEO of the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce to bring the summit to life. They collaborated with the chambers’ diversity, equity and inclusion committee, and the year-long planning process has grown from just over a dozen committee members helping for the first event, to over fifty lending a hand in 2023.
From the beginning there was tremendous interest in the summit. Initial registrations came from across Iowa, the Midwest, and as far as England, Bermuda, and Amsterdam. Jackson and Harrington credit the West Des Moines Chamber’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs as catalysts for the success of the first two summits. According to Harrington, thirty percent of the West Des Moines Chamber members are in other cities, even other states. But cities like New York, Austin, and Kansas City have heard of the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce and want to replicate their programs. That’s because in 2022 the chamber won the National Chamber of the Year award for their innovative programs, including the Black and Brown Business Summit.
While the summit has “business” in the title, the organizers insist the event is for everyone. “It’s not only for business owners,” says Blanca Plasencia, owner of El Fogon Mexican restaurants in West Des Moines. “You can have an idea or a dream and still participate and benefit from this event.” One of the advantages of the summit and the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce that Plasencia points out is the exposure to other business owners and the resources they need to be successful. “It’s hard to know who to go to as a small business owner when I have questions, but they know who I can call.” Jackson, owner of The Great Frame Up agrees. “The summit not only helps you grow, learn, and thrive but its goal is to help entrepreneurs build a legacy of wealth they can pass down to their families and leave to future generations. We show them how to build a sustainable business.”
The planning committee was intentional about making the Black and Brown Business Summit open to all ages and stages of business ownership. Not only did they create a hybrid-style event that makes it accessible worldwide, but it is also affordable. To register for the entire 2-day event is only $45, while participants can choose to attend just the keynote or the pitch contest for $15 each. Registrants can also purchase individual days that fit their schedules. There are even special deals for college students and young people with aspirations to become entrepreneurs.
This year’s summit brings talent from across the nation. The keynote speaker, Dr. Pamela Jolly, the Founder, and CEO of Torch Enterprises, Inc., is a finance professional, international speaker, strategist, and author. Dr. Jolly has twenty years of experience in financial services, strategic management, change management, marketing research and community and economic development. Jolly wrote a curriculum based on her work with minority business enterprises called NarrowRoad™, that combines financial literacy, management, investment management and risk management to create legacy wealth for businesses across the globe. Dr. Jolly is joined by over sixty local and national speakers presenting throughout the two-day summit.
The summit also includes a Vendor Fair, workshops led by renowned business leaders, networking opportunities, and a pitch competition that will be live-streamed and translated into Spanish and American Sign Language. A highlight for this year includes a nonprofit fundraiser benefiting the By Degrees Foundation, a nonprofit organization that started as the “I Have a Dream” Foundation but changed names and management in 2018. The agency was chosen from among seventeen nominated agencies and a selection process the summit created in 2020 to give back to the community. The By Degrees Foundation works to increase high school graduation and postsecondary readiness rates for students at Findlay Elementary, Harding Middle School and North High School, located in some of Des Moines’ most under-resourced neighborhoods. This is the first time they have chosen a single organization. Past recipients include the Iowa NAACP, Jewels Academy, Wilke House, and Conmigo Early Education Center. Additionally, the Mel Essex Award winner will be announced, and the community can learn about the minority business owners in the state during the diversity week leading up to the summit where the West Des Moines Chamber will uplift local businesses owned by women and people of color.
Nationally, Iowa ranks as the worst state to start a minority-owned business. While the national average for minority self-employed people is 25.6%, it is an abysmal 5.1% in Iowa. Harrington, Jackson, Plasencia and the rest of the planning team are working to reverse these statistics. They want Iowa to become the best state to launch and grow a successful minority-owned enterprise. “Owning a business is independence, freedom, pressure, and a lot of rewards. The summit is a way to help entrepreneurs not make the same mistakes I did,” says Jackson, a second-generation business owner. She enjoys imparting her wisdom but is excited to bring even more experienced, successful business leaders to the summit. “Iowa saw three-thousand new businesses in the last twelve months,” says Harrington. Her goal through the summit is to help the most disenfranchised ones prosper. “People coming to the summit have a commitment to Iowa, the Des Moines area and the underrepresented businesses here,” she shares. With that kind of enthusiasm, the 2023 Black and Brown Business Summit is poised to be the greatest one yet.