Navigate 011: Entrepreneurship for All - LIVE from Nashville Startup Shindig

At the EC, we believe that Nashville can only live up to its reputation as “It City” if there are opportunities here for everyone to succeed.

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Our ecosystem’s greatest resource is the people that call Nashville home, and minority chambers of commerce are among the front lines of making our city a more equitable place for those people to shine. Minority chambers advocate, represent and connect entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities throughout the city, fighting for their voices to be heard and empowering them to thrive.

To discuss their work opening doors for entrepreneurs, four minority chamber directors joined us at the EC for a live Navigate podcast recording at Nashville’s Startup Shindig. 

An Advocate in Your Corner

When both structural inequity and societal oppression seek to keep marginalized entrepreneurs at the margins, advocacy is central. “We started to realize that business was the key to LGBT advocacy in the South,” said Joe Woolley, CEO of Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

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“We advocate against anti-LGBT poicies at the state level to make sure that businesses can keep bringing their employees here, and their employees want to come here, so they have the best talent,” he explained.

After seven years of hard work, Nashville LGBT Chamber recently celebrated that, this year, Nashville became the first city in the South to recognize LGBT-certified businesses. “Our goal was just to be counted,” Woolley said. “We wanted the box added so we could be tracked. Because if you’re not counted, if you’re not tracked, you can’t show up in disparity. You can’t show any numbers.”

“In February, Nashville became the first city in the South to recognize LGBT businesses. Only the thirteenth in the country, and was the third-largest economy of places that recognize LGBT-certified businesses.”

Advocacy also means celebrating the successes of minority entrepreneurs and highlighting their contributions to our economy and our city. As President and CEO of Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Yuri Cunza emphasized, “It’s about representing. It’s about highlighting the outstanding contributions of those businesses in our area that are also Hispanic owned.”

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Cunza explained that Latinx businesses are essential to Middle Tennessee’s economic growth. Recently, a study conducted by TSU in partnership with the Hispanic Chamber found about 1500 Hispanic-owned businesses in the Nashville area.

“Our members constitute about 10% of the business community in the Nashville area,” he said. “We can also contribute to the growth and prosperity, and we are the backbone of growth of our region.”

Building a Community

Another key function of the minority chambers is to connect entrepreneurs with a supportive community and with the resources they need to succeed. 

Susan Vanderbilt, chair of Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce, described how the chamber empowers its members. “We offer resources every single day,” she said. 

“It really makes me proud to see that some of the very same people that are standing at these rounds ... are people that came through the Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce, and would not have even known that the Entrepreneur Center existed if we didn’t have an event here once a week called Leads Exchange so that people can connect with each other.”

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Vanderbilt pointed out that truly empowering minority entrepreneurs goes beyond token inclusion initiatives. Instead, it means that their voices are heard and that their network has their back. 

“Inclusion—we hear that word all the time,” she said. “And we think ‘okay yes, they want us to be a part of it.’ But just because you have a seat at the table doesn’t mean that you have a voice at the table.”

Amplifying entrepreneurs’ voices and letting them know that they’re heard motivates Tennessee Latin American Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Delfine Fox to emphasize solidarity among all players in the ecosystem.

“It’s critical… whether we’re entrepreneurs, whether we’re still in the workplace — whatever chair we sit in — that we stand up and we fight the ugly voice of division. It’s critical,” she said. “That’s how we’re gonna come together.”

Fox told listeners that “we strive at the Latin Chamber to be able to make sure that we communicate with our members that we can actually celebrate their one-day-at-a-time victory, when they have them.”

“We can actually let them know that they’re not alone, when they’ve got those tough days.”

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Leaders Committed to All Nashvillians

Nashville entrepreneurs have some of the most respected advocates in the country in their corner. Both Vanderbilt and Cunza sit with national chambers of commerce, and all have been working tirelessly for their communities for years. 

“I live by the motto ‘service is the greatest form of leadership,’” Vanderbilt said. 

“I’m passionate about meeting people, but I’m also extremely interested in what you need. So when I meet someone who can meet the need of someone else I’ve met, I connect them.”

The leaders helming our minority chambers are dedicated to the communities they serve, and they believe in Nashville’s entrepreneurs. “What makes you a leader is about responsibility. It’s about accountability with everything that you say and do,” Fox said. “And most of all, it’s about respect.”

Cunza urges Nashvillians to examine our attitudes toward our neighbors, and to realize the immense value marginalized communities bring to the city. “The Hispanic community is often perceived as a community in need. But it’s not in need of your charity. It’s not in need of your pity,” he said. 

“It’s in need of your respect. It’s in need of your appreciation — your cultural appreciation, perhaps your political appreciation.”

“We are lucky enough to be in the room and at the table, because if you’re not in the room and at the table, you’re on the menu,” Woolley emphasized. “The real reason I do this job is because I think the work we are doing is key for LGBT equality in this state.”

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Nashville Mayor David Briley wrapped up the conversation by highlighting both the key steps Nashville has taken toward addressing inequity in our community, and how we still have a long way to go as a city.

“Over the past few decades, when it comes to doing business with the city, it hadn’t been a level playing field for women and minority-owned business,” Briley said. “So we are changing that.”

“We gave $25,000 each to each of these chambers each year,” he said. “Because we know that helping the minority chambers here in Nashville builds capacity across the board is important to building wealth in communities that haven’t been able to build wealth, for a whole lot of reasons, in this city for the past generations.”

“The real way, I believe, to build wealth in this city is through entrepreneurial activities and small business,” he emphasized. “So every single impediment to that is something we’ve got to be focused on.”

To hear more about how Nashville’s minority chambers are leading the way in advocacy and ecosystem-building, listen to the full episode above. And don’t forget to subscribe to Navigate wherever you get your podcasts! 

photos by Cody Uhls & Colby Crosby

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