Business Focus, Eye on Innovation Key Ingredients to Chamber Success
Conversation with Roy Jay, African-American Chamber president and founder
"We’re all about business."
That’s what Roy Jay, president and co-founder of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, considers as the single most important charge of the chamber. As one of two founding members of the statewide group, Roy has led the organization to attract more than 900 members across Oregon and Washington.
“We have African-Americans that are at the bottom of the totem pole, economically, opportunity-wise, education-wise. Some of it is our own fault too. But we’re here for those people who have the skills and the talent, but have always been held back,” he says.
Born and raised in the North Portland, Roy has transcended poverty of his youth to become one of the most recognizable and prolific icons of entrepreneurship in the region.
“There are only two types of people in this world: the kind that signs the front of the paychecks, and the kind that signs the back. If you end up working for somebody the rest of your life, they will tell you exactly what you’re worth. Being in charge is what makes the difference, and that’s what we inspire everybody else to do. The backbone of this city as well as this country is small business.”
A staunch advocate for minority business, Roy is outspoken about breaking existing minority contracting models. “Why is it that minorities are so happy with set-asides, leftovers, seconds, and hand-me-downs? We refuse to stand in line for minority set-aside contracts that usually amounts to a measly $500 to $25,000. Most businesses and government agencies think that if you’re a minority, you need to get certified, to get a small piece of the pie. We have one mission and one mission only: to make sure that our members and partners get the maximum economic benefit for projects they’re working on,” he says. “Certification should only be used as a booster for small and minority businesses instead of a way of keeping all of the cattle in one herd”, says Jay.
In 2003, Roy formed the Alliance of Minority Chambers of Commerce, a private non profit organization which would empower the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce of Oregon and the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber – in an effort to cast a winning bid to manage downtown parking garages. The Alliance grabbed the attention of other minority business and mainstream advocates from across the country after successfully winning a multi million dollar, multi year contract for the Smart Park parking garages without any type of minority certification.
“We believe in joint ventures. When you join other folks who have the expertise, that’s how you really win and usually win over long established competitors. When we took on the garage project, we were determined to go to the finish line. We had to jump through hoops twice; there was fur flying everywhere. In the past, it was unheard of that minorities would “cross the line” and bid for an entire contract of this magnitude. Jay orchestrated the deal to be a true joint venture which created real economic empowerment. When the final votes were counted at City Hall, it was 5-0 for us,” the best qualified” he says.
“Winning the project brought a sense of pride for folks of color and helped boost status of all three chambers. We went downtown, kicked down some doors and walked away with a major prize.” This was not luck, this was by design he says. (and he is in the process of planning yet another project for the future)
The alliance has been managing the garages since 2003, and Roy is proud of the work accomplished thus far. “Revenues are up, overhead is down, and the city just loves us. We have set an example.”
Key to chamber’s success in promoting emerging businesses and up-and-coming professionals is its emphasis on getting work done. “We pick and choose who our business partners and friends are. Not everybody that applies for membership here is accepted. We’re not a single-race chamber. Of our 950 current members and associates, about 45% are not even African-American. Why do they join? Because they want to make a real difference,” he says.
For Roy, empowering the community is the heart and soul of any economic development effort. Last year, the chamber worked alongside district attorneys, judges, corporate partners and business leaders to organize the widely successful Project Cleanslate. The day long event, held at the Portland Community College Cascade Campus, provided an opportunity for residents to take care of minor criminal matters so that they may get their driver licenses reinstated.
“The project hit the nerve of the city. We recognized that there are people who could not get jobs because of a minor glitch in their records. We didn’t turn away anybody – more than 3,000 showed up. The event took the place of our annual event, because we wanted to take our offerings directly to the community,” he says.
Project Cleanslate – Roy’s brain child – is only one example of how the chamber is bent on trying out new approaches to enhance the effectiveness of its programs. Starting next year, the chamber will revamp its scholarship program to award funds not to high school graduates, but to students entering 9 th grade.
“We recognize that we have a critical problem in African-American, Latino and underprivileged white communities, involving kids that are being passed from grade to grade, to receive a diploma at the end of four years,” he says. “When they graduate, these kids can’t spell the name of the street that you live on, but have a scholarship because they can score points.”
The scholarship program will require active parent involvement and that scholarship recipients maintain a 3.0 GPA and take business and economic related classes. “It will be a joint venture partnership between the parents, the kids and the school,” he says.
Beyond its success at highlighting important community issues, the chamber remains focused on its mission: to maintain an influential voice in economic development discussions across the region. Under Roy’s leadership, the chamber has had a proven track record of providing useful advice to government agencies and private business. Roy is proud that members of his advisory board tirelessly serve as a staunch advocate for small businesses.
“We take a backseat to nobody. If it’s something we really want, we put our efforts into it. We don’t have time to be politically correct all the time. The doors that we open up allow other folks to get opportunities. Why are we successful? Because we bring all the talent in and throw it into the pot. We leave our egos at the parking lot and work together to come up with better plans.”
Roy can be reached at Roy@AfricanAmericanChamberofCommerce.Com.