Supporting Black Entrepreneurs Now and Into the Future

The first half of 2020 has been unlike any other. The unchecked spreading of a novel virus led to the most severe cessation in activity — business, market, and personal — since September 11th. The sustained reduction and resulting unemployment have eclipsed that event. And on the heels of the pandemic was the murder of George Floyd and the resulting weeks of protest. In both cases, the Black community has borne the brunt of the cost in lives by COVID-19 and abusive police practices.

Allen Edson, Black man with glasses in light brown suit and orange/blue patterned tie standing and smiling in the crowd.
Allen Edson, President of the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP

Innovate Pasadena’s Rob McClinton reached out to Allen Edson, President of the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP. As we recommend everyone to do, we led with questions with an intent to listen and understand. We want to know: how these events affect Pasadena’s Black community beyond the obvious suffering; how people who seek to be allies of the community can add support; and, how Innovate Pasadena can support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) entrepreneurs, especially those whose business falls within our technology and design sphere.

Innovate Pasadena (IP): The twin events of COVID-19 and the protests arising out of the murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans, have impacted Black communities across the nation. How have they affected the Pasadena community?

Allen Edson: These events have shined a light on the disparities and inequalities that have existed for hundreds of years. While the virus is novel, the lack of affordable healthcare for the poor, communities of color, and Black communities is explicitly not.

We have known people needed help for a long time. That’s why the Affordable Care Act was passed. As a society, we keep trying to find ways to ignore the universality of this urgent need. The coronavirus is striking the Black community hardest, but it’s impacting people and families across the board. This virus doesn’t care about politics or your healthcare plan. Your plan only determines if you have the resources to put up a fight or not. It doesn’t save you from needing to fight.

Inequality enables some folks to avoid exposure while increasing the risk for others. Pasadena enjoys a large tech community. It has two world-class educational institutions and one of the planet’s premier space research facilities. And a lot of the people who work in these places got to work from home during the lockdowns. They ventured out, occasionally, to restock their pantries. The folks stocking the shelves, running the registers, driving the trucks didn’t have that option. When people working from home ventured out, they interacted with just a couple of folks. Those store workers, however, interacted with dozens or more people every day.

On any given day, the home worker’s exposure was singular. The essential worker’s exposure was exponential.

In that way, Pasadena’s Black and brown community had the same experience as those in any other city. If anything, the willingness of folks in Pasadena to wear masks is this community’s saving grace. It may be the only reason we haven’t seen higher infection numbers.

IP: And how about the Floyd murder?

Edson: Pasadena, like many American cities, has had issues — shall we say — between its police force and its minority communities. Many Pasadenaens may not be aware of them, but they have happened. We work with the City and the Police Department to resolve issues in a way that keeps them from happening repeatedly. It’s a work in progress like these things often are, but the work is happening, and that’s encouraging.

IP: What has the NAACP been working on to keep issues from happening repeatedly?

Edson: We are promoting, and collecting signatures to support, our Pasadena Community Bill of Rights and Declaration of Interdependence. It’s a list of 12 reforms we would like to see the city implement that addresses harmful practices like racial profiling and demilitarizes our Department. It institutes long overdue civilian oversight and builds healing and trust by taking clear responsibility for past aggressions.

It would have the City ban biometric technology, like facial recognition, which has proven to be biased and provide officers with anti-bias training and regular psychological evaluations. We would also like to see the City write its own policies instead of using those provided by a third-party like Lexipol, forbid conflict of interest in representing officers accused of acts that are generally considered criminal, and for candidates to not take campaign donations from the Police union.

IP: What type of response have you seen from the broader Pasadena community?

Edson: We have experienced a healthy influx of support through donations and memberships. There has always been more work that needs doing than resources available to do it. That hasn’t changed, but the added support is needed and appreciated. And we could use more of it and more legal assistance as well.

IP: And why this time? As a Black man myself, I’ll point out that Floyd was not the first of us to be murdered by the police.

Edson: No, he was not. He wasn’t even the last since then. But, what I think has affected so many people was witnessing his murder. He wasn’t the first to die, but he was the first to do so, slowly, over eight painful minutes in front of us while the murderer ignored shouts, and other sworn officers stood by seemingly oblivious to, if nothing else, their oaths. Watching a man die, hearing him call out for his dead mother, watching the murderer ignore all the pleas around him so callously, so passively. Those things were enough to get people off the sidelines and into the fight for equality in justice — equality in the justice system.

IP: That was a hard thing to watch. I couldn’t do it myself.

Edson: People saw first hand how an encounter that should have led to a court date, instead led to a funeral. And, for many, they have decided it’s going to lead to change.

IP: I was born three months before Dr. King was assassinated. I never thought that 50 plus years later, we’d still be fighting for equity in the justice system, let alone other parts of society. Will this push for change last?

Edson: If I could answer that, I’d be a billionaire. It’s up to all of us. Our branch, the Pasadena Chapter of the NAACP, has been here fighting for change for 101 years. And not just for Black people, and people of color, but for everyone. A more equitable society for the Black community is a more equitable society for everyone — Black, white, brown, women, men, gay, straight, immigrant, native, and everyone all around and in between.

A lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion work against the United States’ advancement and betterment. Exclusion and inequality stifle excellence in America. It marginalizes talent, denies opportunity, and reduces the impact so many people could have on our nation’s future.

A more equitable society for the Black community is a more equitable society for everyone — Black, white, brown, women, men, gay, straight, immigrant, native, and everyone all around and in between.

Edson: Yes. For some people, they’ll make a one-time donation and call it a day. That’s fine. For others, they will take a more determined approach and make it an annual gift. This isn’t a short-term problem so that’s even better. For others still, they will give of their time too, whether it’s pro-bono legal work, or mentoring, or tutoring. They will find ways that are systemic in a positive way.

It comes down to how committed you are to see this specific change through. The more folks who make this a high-priority item for themselves, the more likely we are to get this changed in a meaningful way.

IP: We touched on the different industries that call Pasadena home. What can those companies and organizations do to make a difference in that meaningful way?

Edson: It starts with a gut check. Do you want to make a difference because that’s the proper thing to say right now? If so, pick an organization in need, like our chapter, and make your donation and then issue your statement. Again, the support is needed and appreciated, so there is no judgment if your honest assessment says this is not what your company stands for.

If, however, this is meaningful to you, your company, and your employees, I suggest looking at your vendor list. Many Black-owned companies would like a chance to win some of your business. Do you provide lunch every Friday for your staff? Great. Can you give a Black-owned restaurant an opportunity to earn one of those Friday slots? And, because this comes up in conversation, mindful of assumptions. A Black-owned restaurant is not necessarily soul food. Black people own sandwich shops, bakeries, and more.

Is there a Black-owned machine shop, development studio, design shop, or freelancer who can fill a need in your supply chain? If you search for people with a different background than yours, you’ll find a unique quality or element that makes your service or product stand out from the rest. There’s strength and value in diversity.

If you search for people with a different background than yours, you’ll find a unique quality or element that makes your service or product stand out from the rest.

Edson: Absolutely. We’re continually updating our list of businesses, so if anyone needs help, please reach out. We also have a COVID-19 stimulus fund to support African-American businesses. You can support them by contributing to this fund.

IP: What about supporting African-American employees?

Edson: Everyone, especially in tech, is doing a headcount these days. From their boardroom to conference rooms to the general office floor. If it seems like you’re lacking in diversity, there are software systems that let you check your hiring processes for hidden bias. Use them. Some consultants can help address bias in hiring and workplace cultures. Use them.

Just don’t make inclusion the job of your Black employees. They shouldn’t have to solve the problem that affects them — on top of their existing work. Frankly, asking them to do the work is a sign of bias and, it’s your job, not theirs.

IP: And how can Innovate Pasadena support Black entrepreneurs, technologists, and designers?

Edson: The same question applies to you that applies to companies: why and how committed are you to it?

IP: I feel we’re committed, and I know we’re driven to be impactful somehow. We’ve worked with STEAM:CODERS and The Funding Boutique to support their organizations. Though not being native to Pasadena and its history, I have to say that, in my experience, our door has never been closed. What do you think is the dynamic at play here?

Edson: Not too different than anywhere else. For years, the Black community has been told that the door was open, only to find that it was only open on the first floor. The stairwell was locked, and the elevator required a key card. After a while, you hesitate to bother pushing the up button, or trying to access the stairs because you don’t want to go through that rejection — again.

Like encouraging people to review their vendor list, Black entrepreneurs and technologists and designers must know that Innovate Pasadenais here and active and that they are welcome. They need to know that they won’t be tokenized for a website photo then shut out of giving a pitch.

There could be an unconscious bias about how they are going to be treated. And younger folks are often profiled in Old Pasadena, which keeps them from coming to where most of Innovate Pasadena’s events are held.

IP: So, what can we do to affect change there?

Edson: For an organization like Innovate Pasadena, it’s an effort of actively reaching out and listening. I would imagine that it’s no different than what you did when you first reached out to the community right around you to start the organization. If you want more people to know you are there and that they are welcome, talk to more people. The innovation space should be a great, open space for African-Americans to express their talents. You have to let them know you’re there.

To learn more about the Pasadena chapter of NAACP initiatives, and how you can support their stimulus program for local Black owned businesses, please visit their website: http://naacppasadena.org/. For more on Pasadena Community Bill of Rights, please visit https://actionnetwork.org/letters/support-the-pasadena-community-bill-of-rights. Innovate Pasadena strives to not only spotlight and engage with our innovation community but also present a space where innovators of all backgrounds can thrive.

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