EBONY Exclusive: Segun Idowu, CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, on Bridging the Racial Wealth Gap

Image: courtesy of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts

On the eve of the annual meeting of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA), President and CEO Segun ldowu spent the afternoon at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. A lot of her work for the past five years was “making sure Black businesses got our fair share of city contracts,” says ldowu referring to the first person of color and first women elected in the city’s 400 year history. “But she had folks on the other side of the 5th floor of City Hall that weren’t following through,” he says, adding, “now that she is in the mayor’s seat, we are very optimistic that she will leverage that power for the benefit of folks who have not been included.”

When he introduced himself to people at the private reception following the ceremony who were not familiar with BECMA, it went something like this: “We represent 2,000 Black employer firms that are keeping 17,000 people off of unemployment and generating $2 billion every year,” says Idowu, adding, “that blows people away. Because a lot of white people in the corporate world think we represent 50 businesses that are run by the owner and that’s the only employee.”

A Morehouse Man and Chairman of the “Tuition is Too Damn High” Party, Idowu, whose name means “God is victorious”, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society, before moving back home to Boston in 2012. Two years later he helped co-found the Boston Police Camera Action Team, an organization that was dedicated to researching, drafting, introducing, and successfully lobbying for policy that equips every Boston police officer with body-worn cameras. “We didn’t just say we want this then leave it to bureaucrats and the police to tell us how they were going to do it. No, we wrote the policy. It was `we want this and this is how you’re going to do it.` ” 

It was that conviction to do more than identify a problem but design and follow through on solutions that led him to working with now Mayor Wu. When he was hired at BECMA in 2018, she was his first phone call. At the time she was city council president and co-sponsor of The Equity in City of Boston Contracts Ordinance, an 2017 initiative which required the city to beef up its supplier diversity program and submit quarterly reports to city council so members and the public could track how the city was doing. He asked for a copy of the report. “I couldn’t find it online. And it wasn’t available online because the city hadn’t produced it.” 

Idowu’s phone call looking for the breakdown of the number of Black-owned businesses awarded city contracts—not the total 20% supplier diversity number the administration was pushing that lumped together women, veterans, LGBTQ and minorities—led to a hearing that exposed the inequity of the equity ordinance. Less than 1%—.004% to be exact—of the $664 million spending in taxpayer-funded contracts went to Black businesses. “You have to understand where you are if you’re going to fight for something,” says Idowu, “I can’t say I want more contracts for Black people and we’re at 20% because then I look like an idiot.”

EBONY: The theme for this year’s annual meeting is Renaissance. Why?

After any tragedy, it’s a time for Black people to be innovative and to thrive. 

The coronavirus pandemic reshaped the economy and social fabric.  But BECMA was able to respond quickly to its member’s SOS calls early on. 

Segun ldowu: People think we’ve been around forever because they didn’t expect an organization to respond so nimbly. We had to.  What do we say in Black communities all the time, “when America gets the sniffles, Black America gets the flu.” Ninety percent were experiencing severe impact. This was before the shut down, before the country was taking this seriously. Fifty percent of members said they had no more than 60 days of cash reserves to last before shutting down. Half said they would have to fire people if we shut down for more than two weeks. We published that survey and used it as an advocacy tool. But at the end of the day, people can’t eat from policy.

Where did you go to find the money to help?

Malia Lazu, who used to work with Harry Belafonte, was a staple in Boston and has done a lot of community organizing and activism work across the country. She had been on the outside for so long—Black woman fighting capitalism—and had just been named Executive Vice President at Berkshire Bank. She’s all about community and making sure we have access. I called her along with the Executive Director of LGBT Chamber and we talked about what we were going to do.  What came out of that conversation was the $3 million Futures Fund which extended a line of credit up to $50,000 for small business members for our organizations. This not only helps you build your credit and helps you get what you need to stay afloat, but it also is a product that lasts after the pandemic. There are so many financial programs that exist only because of the pandemic and once the pandemic is over, they will not exist. But this program is forever. 

This work was done during the time Congress was fighting about the Cares Act. Do you think Malia moved quickly to respond because she is Black?

Representation matters. But just because you got a Black person doesn’t mean stuff is going to change. The more important point is that she understands from a lived experience. I didn’t have to explain anything. I didn’t have to present charts and make a pitch and it was, Our folks are suffering. What can we do? 

The BOSS (Back Office Support Service) program is also a product of the shutdown.

The program focuses purely on the infrastructure, or the back office of a business like accounting procedures, legal issues, making sure you’re incorporated properly. We pay for it. Our members reach out and they say I need this. We have a list of other Black businesses that provide those services. We will pay that Black business market rate for that service to help a member. So we are creating a strong ecosystem.

How important are your members to the state’s economic recovery?

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I’ve said this to the governor, “every time you take credit for a healthy economy, that’s because of Black businesses.”  We are not only generating revenue, we have put all of that revenue back into the state. We’re paying Black people. We’re investing in other businesses that are here because Black people use other Black businesses. We can’t say the same is true on the other side.

The ordinance is a great example of the lack of economic inclusion. How do you address the topic without sounding like a broken record?

As a society, our businesses create safety nets by helping people who don’t have anything. The more people you create who have something, the less you have to spend on public safety nets. There was a report by the Mass Taxpayers Foundation, studying the racial wealth gap in the state. They are a conservative organization so they are not known for studying Black people. That report concluded that if racism was to end tomorrow in the state—if we made everything equitable in schools and health care and business—Massachusetts would add $25 billion to the state economy. So it shows you how powerful a drug it is because people would willingly hold back the potential of all of our communities just to feel powerful.

But there always seems to be a pushback when people fight just for Black People.

I have no problem focusing on just Black because when Black people are doing well, everybody’s doing well. People have tried to get us to shift our focus, but I often let these folks know that I’m fighting just for Black people because I know that whatever policy or program is set up is going to wind up benefiting everyone, right? If you look at history, whenever you’re fighting for just Black people, everybody else benefits. It has never been true the other way around. It’s never been true that you start off with all lives matter, Black people get something good out of it. The prime example is affirmative action. Everybody is benefiting from the voting rights act, from the fair housing law. Everybody’s benefiting from these programs, even though we were just fighting for Black people. 

BECMA was founded after a 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report found that the median net worth of Black households in the city was $8 compared to $247,500 for white families—so it is that wealth gap that fueled support for the nonprofit. Doesn’t that mean that your existence is dependent on the problem?

No. I am not trying to exist. The whole purpose of a nonprofit is to solve a problem that government and the private sector is not solving. Everything I’m doing right now as CEO of this organization, raising resources, hiring staff, getting members, is absolutely to disband when we have reached our goal, which is eliminating the racial wealth gap. My thing is, I am not like I’m not trying to be around for 100 years.

My grandfather was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and toward the end of his death he told me not to confuse motion with progress. Because the country was still talking about the same s**t that he was fighting against 50 years ago. Motion gets us to 0.004%. Progress gets us to whole numbers.

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