Getting Money in the Right Hands

Bob Dickerson


Keeping profits local

By Max Rykov

This month, I’d like to start off with a hybrid philosophical/rhetorical question: what would happen to a community if every service or product that was available at the nearest Walmart was provided by a number of locally-owned businesses.

That would be…exceptional! Phenomenal! The mark of a healthy small business ecosystem! Imagine–all those profits staying within the local community, instead of being metaphorically shipped off to the mansion of a gajillionaire in Arkansas.

Some may say that such a vision is overly nostalgic, impractical in the modern world, and inconvenient to our innate sense of instant gratification-fueled rabid consumerism. Those people are probably Walmart shareholders, and their opinions on these matters should be taken with a grain of individually-wrapped and discounted salt.

So how can Birmingham build a healthy small business ecosystem, one in which money is cycling through local companies, empowering individual owners, and creating pride and vibrancy in our communities? First, it’s important to understand some basic facts about our current situation. Birmingham proper is about 75% black, with the entire metro area being around 30 percent black. However, black-owned business, metro area-wide, generate less than 1 percent of the total $100 billion in business revenue annually.

How can we alleviate this massive disparity? Enter Bob Dickerson.

Mr. Dickerson is a two decade veteran of the banking industry, and the Director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center (BBRC) and CEO of Foundation Capital. As a Certified Development Company with the Small Business Administration, Foundation Capital has approved nearly $1 billion of loans for businesses, and helped its clients develop capacity and find new customers, in addition to procuring capital.

Fifteen years ago, Dickerson founded the A.G. Gaston Conference in order to build wealth for black-owned businesses through enterprise development  He has worked for decades with financial institutions and municipalities to develop means for growing black-owned businesses, and his diligence attracted the attention of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), a non-profit organization that creates opportunities for people to build wealth. The NCRC works with community leaders, policymakers and financial institutions to champion fairness in banking, housing and business.

For the past seven years, Dickerson has served as the Board Chair of the NCRC, and during his tenure, the organization has worked with financial institutions to establish over $150 BILLION dollars in Community Benefits Agreements nationwide. Suffice it to say, Bob Dickerson knows about building wealth.

I recently asked Mr. Dickerson a pretty simple question–what can Birmingham do to increase wealth for black-owned businesses? He offered a simple and common sense solution to get that process started in earnest.

The largest companies in town can commit to spending money for goods and services with black-owned businesses.

I recently met David and Ebony Hill, a wonderful couple who run an embroidery company out of their house–Gifted Hands Embroidery. They’re currently outgrowing the space on the ground floor of their home, and are doing excellent work for their clients. Just one contract for embroidery services, with Birmingham City Schools or UAB or Alabama Power Company, could grow their business significantly.

There are countless other examples of such small black-owned businesses that could be transformed by the right business relationship, and I think it’s incumbent upon those with access to resources to make it a matter of company policy, to establish those right business relationships. And anyone who wants to level the playing field in Birmingham can be intentional about shopping with black-owned businesses. The Birmingham Black Business Directory ( is a good place to start if you’re not sure where to find a list of black owned businesses, but it’s certainly not exhaustive. I’m going to challenge myself to increasing my own spending with black owned businesses, and encourage my friends to do the same.

While individual spending is great, institutional support can really provide the infrastructure for lasting change. One of my favorite examples of investment in community wealth building is in Cleveland, Ohio, where the local community foundation and other community partners, including the municipal government, helped establish Evergreen Cooperatives in 2009. One of the components of Evergreen Cooperatives is an industrial scale laundry, which, through an intentional partnership with local anchor institutions, provides a significant percentage of laundry services for Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic. Evergreen Cooperatives is set up as a worker-owned cooperative business, in which employees actually share the company’s profits. I’ve been a big advocate for replicating this investment, which is now referred to as “The Cleveland Model,” in Birmingham. I hope and pray that something akin to it can be accomplished here, and I recommend reading the wonderful information about it on

If you’re interested in helping build wealth for Birmingham’s residents, consider attending the A.G. Gaston Conference, traditionally held at the BJCC in February, and challenge yourself to increase your personal spending at black owned businesses. And if you’re in a position of influence at a major institution or company–call Bob Dickerson and see how you work with him.

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