| Sam Brooks Takes Gavel as Chair of the Portland Business Alliance
In 1987, Sam Brooks, founder and longtime president of the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME), became the only the second person of color to serve on the board of the Portland Business Alliance.
In 2007, Brooks makes history by becoming the first African-American to lead the Alliance, one of Oregon's leading business organizations. The Alliance is made up of more than 1,300 members representing more than 325,000 business people in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Yamhill counties in Oregon and Clark County in Washington.
Next to Sho Dozono, Brooks becomes only the second person of color to hold the esteemed post at the Alliance, which was established as the Portland Chamber of Commerce in 1870. Brooks is excited about the prospect of leading the Alliance and making an impact in various business communities.
“My approach is simple: ask the question, find the answers, come up with strategy to implement, and make it happen. We want to make sure we create partnerships, and that we have a solid agenda to work on,” he said. In an interview with Oregon Minority Business, Brooks shares his vision for the Alliance, lessons learned from his longtime leadership of OAME, and plans for the future.
What is your most important charge as chairman of the Alliance? My charge is to lead the board in the activities that ensure the growth of business occurs in this region, and that the relationships that need to develop between all of the constituencies happen. That’s what I’ll try to do. I’m particularly cognizant of some constituencies that we need to reach out to a little bit more. I’m interested in talking with folks about how we can do our work better. What we intend to do is spend time making sure that all of the community-based organizations, the other chambers – particularly the minority chambers – that we get out and meet with them.
I learned early on that you can’t do things by yourself. If you’re a lone ranger, you’re doomed for failure. We want to work closely with the CEOs from other major corporations and the public arena so we can determine a strategy for getting people to come together. A reverend friend of mine once told me: “The train is going to leave the station, and not everyone has to be on it.” Maybe we’ll get them the second time around, or maybe the third time. But we don’t have to hold up everything and not have any successes, because everybody’s not on. In the meantime, we’ll get something done.
How do you plan to accomplish your goals? People want to do the right thing. They may not know how, and that’s where leadership comes in. Whether you have different ethnic groups, big or small business, rural or urban business – in the end, it’s still all about business. You have to have good marketing, good access to capital, good management. If you’re not managing your backroom and can’t get capital when you need to do something on your business, and if how you go about marketing is not effective, you’re failing. We’ll reach out and try to bring in people who have not been involved. There will be a discussion about what’s working, what’s not working, and how do we fix the things that are not working. My approach is a bit different. I believe that you get a lot more flies with honey that you do with vinegar. I could sit down and spend a lot of time talking about who did what to whom, but that’s not very productive. What I’d rather do is say: here’s where I am, here’s what I’m trying to get to, and how can you be a part of helping me do that?
OAME is recognized throughout the country as among the first multicultural business groups established to advocate for minority businesses. What were the key drivers behind the establishment of OAME? During the Reagan administration, I was the first person of color and the first person west of the Mississippi to be nominated for the National Small Business Development Center Advisory Board. I realized that the challenges of diversity and inclusiveness wasn’t wasn’t just in Oregon – people were struggling with the same issues around the country. I came back from that experience with the idea of starting an organization that was multi-ethnic and included everybody. I had good friends in all the different communities of color. When I went to talk to those folks, and all agreed it was a good idea, but they didn’t think it would work. They didn’t think that bringing together African-Americans, Latinos, different Asian-American communities, Native Americans and European-Americans – would work. I said, maybe it won’t work, but let’s give it a try. And here we are, so many years down the road. In the beginning, some communities were concerned about what OAME will do to their organization. Will this take resources away? As people have seen, it doesn’t take anything away. If your primary interest is to be involved in a particular chamber, then you should do that. Not everybody has to be involved in the same thing. On the other hand, I felt like I could add something by pulling people together. That’s why I’ve taken that approach.
What is the secret to OAME’s success? OAME has been successful because people want to work together. Our members realize that there are important things we need to accomplish together. The market is everybody, and successful business people understand how to work with other communities. If I have a product, would I want to sell it just to African-Americans? Ideally, I’d like to sell it to everybody. If you have a Chinese restaurant, do only Chinese people eat there? Can I go eat? The one thing that every business has in common is that you’re in business to make a profit. Do you want to help seniors or youth? That’s ideal, but that’s not why you’re in business.
OAME members are in business to make a profit. If we can help businesses achieve their most basic reason for being in business, then I believe the community will hold that business responsible for activities that will help the community. But if that business is not able to sustain itself, eventually, it won’t be in a position to help anybody. Try to determine what your mission and goals. Then make sure that you’re part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Focus on building the strength of your organization, because capability will recognize capability.
What was the business environment like for minorities when you founded OAME back in 1987? Many folks think everybody goes to bed at night plotting things against them. You’re giving people way too much credit. What I found was that you’re not in their thoughts at all. When they’re not planning to be inclusive, they’re not leaving you out. They’re simply not writing you in. So what I found was, we just weren’t on the radar screen. In my opinion, that’s the biggest change that has occurred. Compared to 20 years ago, the growth of Latino and Asian communities in Oregon has caused more people to pay attention to these communities. They now are a significant part of the economy. For example, there are more Asian-owned companies in Oregon than all the other ethnic minority groups combined.
You’ve been recognized for being a visionary in the realm of inclusiveness. What factors contribute to your success in bringing a diverse group of people together? I grew up in a segregated south in the 40s and 50s, so I understood being separate and unequal. Having served three tours of duty in Vietnam, I visited many countries as part of the military. This resulted in my somewhat perspective of the world. When we were having the marches and demonstrations during the civil rights era in the 1960s, I was traveling to different countries, where I felt welcomed by people I met, from various cultures. I thought to myself: “This is better than being at home.” I remember the first time I was in Japan – I didn’t speak Japanese. My ship was tied up in Yokosuka, so I got on a train and went to Tokyo. Didn’t have a clue about what to expect, but I had the best time of my life. I’ve learned through my travels that if you treat people with respect, they treat you with respect. When I came back from the military in 1968-69, I decided to focus my work on getting people together. Also during that time, I met my wife who was a Canadian. Together, we raised a couple of young women and now have a few grandchildren. Our family is international and multi-ethnic.
When people think OAME, they think Sam Brooks. What’s the next step for OAME? When I step down, I will move from being president to serving on the board of directors in July 2009. OAME is a composite of all our members. We are creating a new division – OAME International, which will focus on the intersection of international business and Oregon. This is the logical next step, because a good portion of our businesses come from other countries.
How has the business environment for minority-owned enterprises improved in the last 20 years? Discrimination has always been with us from the very beginning. I have been the victim of it. Running my staffing agency, I’ve walked into conferences where people have said to me: “We’re not looking for affirmative action candidates, we also are not looking for people that find them.”
I said – “I guess my presentation will be short then.”
They laughed and I laughed. I told them – “I didn’t come here to talk about affirmative action, I just came to give you my business card to see if you needed my services. But it seems that you’re not ready for them.”
Three years later, that same company called to say that we were recommended by the Office of Federal Contracting Compliance, to work with them on issues surrounding inclusiveness. I told them that I’ll work with them: “But it will cost you a lot more than it would have then.” They laughed, and we started working together immediately after. The business environment for minority and women-owned businesses has improved, but there are still problems.
There are programs in place to encourage more diversity, and mostly what we have to do is figure out how to access those programs. For example, most of the business contracted by the Portland Development Commission comes through the RFP process. If you don’t know how to write RFPs, you probably aren’t getting much of their business. If someone has a practice of using low-bid contractors, and you aren’t very good at doing a bid – then you probably will never be the low-bidder. At OAME, we’ve made an effort to help our members navigate the contracting world, to enable them to be successful. Some things that oughta have gone away are still with us: not having resources available; access to capital; good technical support through community-based organizations. Often times, monies are going to organizations that have no history of working with people of color and women.
What advice do you have for people of color who want to make a difference in the business and civic realms? It’s important to get more people of color on various boards and commissions, so we could have the opportunity to influence outcomes. Currently, at the Portland Development Commission – three of the five commissioners are people of color. That is a first in the history of this city. I would encourage people of color to get on boards, and volunteer as much as possible. You don’t get paid anything directly, but you get to meet and work with people. They begin to respect you because they know how well you work.