Tara Lynn Gray (foreground), CEO of the Fresno Black Chamber, has identified transportation and women in business as major areas to focus effort and resources in Fresno. Contributed photo

published on February 28, 2018 - 1:13 PM
Written by Edward Smith

The Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce is settling in with new leadership and a focus on transportation and improving the plight of women entrepreneurs.

After Tate Hill stepped down as president in 2016, the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce went through a full year with an interim CEO. This meant that without a permanent position, fundraising was limited, costing the chamber potential money in the tens of thousands of dollars, according to Tara Lynn Gray, president of the chamber.

“I’m trying to focus on building the chamber just like I would a business —multiple revenue streams and multiple projects that speak to the various levels of constituency that we have,” she said.

Gray said she is trying to steer the chamber in a new direction, with less of a civil rights focus and more of an economic development and wealth-building focus.

“I think that we’ve had enough focus on the problems, and we equally need a great focus on solution-making and solution-building,” Gray said. “The fastest way to get people out of poverty is to get them to work. If we create jobs, we create income that changes individuals and families.”

But now, the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce is beginning to expand its presence with a recently-approved $10 million Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative (TCC) project, the Clean Shared Mobility Network, as well as the Women’s Economic Impact Center, a cohort to help women access more capital-intensive businesses.

One of the first things the chamber noticed was the money in the TCC program — funded by $70 million in state cap-and-trade funds — that was going to projects and organizations in Downtown Fresno and Chinatown.

Gray wanted to know what role they could play in the project and what sectors in the city were ripe for economic development.

There was one area she knew well — transportation.

“Transportation within the city is a barrier,” Gray said. “It’s a barrier to medical services, it’s a barrier to social services, access to jobs and to small business growth. Not everyone can afford to own their vehicle, fuel it and keep it in great running condition.”

What the TCC partners hoped for was a project to help fill the gaps that public transportation can’t fill.

“Until we can have a really strong public transportation system, we need to figure out how to get affordable access to transportation,” said Preston Prince, CEO of the Fresno Housing Authority (FHA), who signed onto the project and is giving an additional $100,000 for services to expand its reach.

The problem is finding ways to get families in rural areas without public transportation access to hospitals and grocery stores.

So, the chamber, Along with Valley Lead, the Fresno State Transportation Institute, the Fresno Housing Authority as well as the Shared Mobility Use Center out of Los Angeles, all decided to work together and have the chamber sign off as the project lead.

“I think that the chamber has a comprehensive approach to implementing the car-sharing program,” said Prince. “I’m happy that they’re taking the lead — they have good people over there.”

With the recent approval of funds by the state, they are now looking at a 42-vehicle fleet of electric vans and cars, as well as hundreds of electric bikes for ride-sharing use that would reach over 1,000 housing units in FHA’s service area, which includes one property outside TCC boundaries.

The project would include both taxi-style pickup as well as car rentals, with a web platform to synchronize access to vehicles. There would be customer service and charging stations installed throughout downtown.

“We’re all looking for a boost to the local economy and our expectation is to bring a boost to the local economy,” Gray said. “In addition to doing what’s right for the climate.”

Alongside the TCC project, the chamber worked with the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation to create the Women’s Economic Impact Center. The chamber secured funding from both Chevron and Wells Fargo to start the center that meets in the Downtown Business Hub on Fulton Street in Fresno.

“One program (Gray) mentioned to us was the Central Valley Women’s Economic Impact Center. Economic development is an important priority for Chevron,” Chevron representative Megan Lopez said. “We thought it was a great opportunity to partner with them.

The center was created to address the gap between men and women, where white-owned firms still earn a majority of large government contracts, according to Gray. Part of the problem is that many women of color still limit themselves to the service industry, Gray said, missing out on capital-intensive businesses.

“It’s about creating a baseline for women of color,” Gray said. “I think that one of the reasons there is such a gap is that there is a tendency in the minority community to go into service oriented businesses—dry cleaners, restaurants.”

The conversation at the women’s cohort begins with finding those opportunities, and not being limited to what business owners are exposed to, but rather researching and finding broader opportunities.

“We still aren’t reaching the level of success financially that our male counterparts are. When it comes to business, women of color are lacking greatly,” Gray said. “African-American women earn less than 3 percent of all women-owned business revenue. Our white counterparts are getting 68 percent.”

The first cohort started in January at the Downtown Business Hub. The training includes recognizing opportunity and staying relevant as an entrepreneur as the economy and other factors change.

Ultimately, Gray hopes that having women of color break through to the business world would establish people and families of color financial stability and prosperity.

“The connection to the American dream is the depiction of generational wealth,” Gray said. “You can make a living for yourself at your business and feed your children, but are you able to bless your children’s children and make a generational impact?”

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