Andrea Harris was not well-known, but she should have been. She was the co-founder of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Business Development, an advocate for social and economic justice, a champion for historically Black colleges and universities, and a Bennett Belle (Class of 1970) who passionately loved her college. After a brief illness and a stroke, she made her transition on May 20. The death of the well-connected woman who made it her business to link others together has drawn tributes and accolades from former North Congresswoman Eva Clayton, from other North Carolina legislators, from many of her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters, from her alma mater, Bennett College, from the Minority Business Development Agency and from her beloved Institute. A community organizer before she was a minority business advocate, Harris was a little woman with a big voice that she did not mind using for advocacy. For many years, she convinced the North Carolina legislature to fund the Institute of Minority Business Development. At 5’1″, Andrea was a compact hurricane, a force to be reckoned with. And she was a friend.
I was so sorry to hear of transition. We talked at least a couple of times a week when she was a trustee at Bennett College and I was its President. More recently, we might spoke infrequently and no matter how much time passed between our conversations, either of us felt free, at any time, to pick up the phone to chat or ask for a favor. The news about the ways the coronavirus has affected Black and other minority business would undoubtedly have prompted a conversation with brainstorming, commiseration, advocacy , action possibilities, and possible solutions.
When I read the news that the corona-imposed recession has wiped out more than 40 percent of Black-owned businesses nationally, I thought about Harris and passion she brought to her advocacy. And I thought about the “bailout” has shortchanged minority-owned businesses, many who saw their requests for funding through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) be declined. I imagined that Andrea would have called her friend, former Bennett faculty member and Congresswoman Alma Adams to push for set-asides for minority business. I imagined her calling another mutual friend, Rev. William Barber, to weave the minority business cause into his advocacy for social and economic justice.
Harris would not be surprised, just as I am not, that Black-owned and other minority businesses got the short stick of bailout funds and that such a large number of Black-owned businesses (more than any other racial or ethnic group) are imperiled by the coronavirus recession. The massive hit Black-owned businesses took is partly a function of the industries, including personal services, that minority businesses are concentrated in. It is also a function of the precarious position of minority businesses, many of which are underfunded, with unequal access to capital and market discrimination. People like Andrea Harris fought hard for the right of minority businesses to thrive. And she believed in helping young women, especially her Bennett Belles, to learn about entrepreneurship. She helped us set up a summer entrepreneurship program for high school students, helped establish an entrepreneurship minor, and took many fledgling businesses under her wing.
We need more advocates for minority business. Most Black-owned businesses have but one employee. Many are unable to provide essential job benefits –health care, sick leave, and more. More Black-owned businesses need more access to capital. Coronavirus has heightened our awareness of inequality in employment, income, occupational status (22 percent of nurses’ assistants are Black women, and another 22 percent are Latina), health status, housing status, and more. While the Small Business Administration did not initially collect demographic data on who got bailout money, instinctively, we know that Black-owned businesses were less likely than others to get funding.
Andrea Harris’s life work was about promoting Black business. As these businesses are being harder hit than others by the corona recession, many of us know that our feisty friend would roll her sleeves up and dig in to offer advocacy and provide solutions for Black-owned business. Amid a national pandemic, some don’t think we should talk much about race. But if we are all in the same boat, some folks are riding, while others are rowing. Harris would be one of those who would focus on the rowers. In tribute to her, we should all be advocates for Black-owned businesses, and direct some of our dollars their way.