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Ken Harris is looking to take Detroit’s Black-owned businesses to the next level

Detroit Free Press
Jan. 22, 2022
Scott Talley

A vegan. A yogi. A “meditation and breathwork advocate.” And an avid supporter of entrepreneurs.

Those descriptions, in his own words, apply to native Detroiter Ken Harris. And he wants it known that who he is as a total human being is what directly drives his work each day as national president and chief executive officer of the National Business League, the nation’s oldest and largest trade organization serving Black businesses.

“It’s holistic entrepreneurship; there can be no wealth without health — mind, body, soul and spirit,” stated Harris, who has an office in the National Business League’s Midwest Regional Office in downtown Detroit. “I make a concerted effort to prioritize self-care, just as the pursuit of Black economic freedom is my life’s purpose, design, and contribution during this lifetime and probably the next. It all ties in together as a lifestyle, channeling balance and alignment of right frequency, positive energy, and high vibrational activity daily, which is a part of ancient African traditions.”

Harris, 48, speaks fondly of growing up in the late 1970s and ’80s on West Buena Vista Street off Petoskey in the Russell Woods area. During his boyhood days, he was skilled enough in basketball to eventually earn a full basketball scholarship to Clark Atlanta University. And, as an adult, he has become adept at the advocacy game by being an active player in the movement to advance Black businesses. Prior to assuming the leadership of the National Business League in 2017, Harris created the International Detroit Black Expo, which became one of the largest showcases for Black businesses in the country.

Feeding off the Detroit Black Expo’s momentum, Harris went on to start the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, which grew to more than 26,000 members with chapters throughout the state. He also has been a featured speaker at numerous conferences across the country; and as a subject-matter expert, Harris is regularly quoted in national publications. But putting aside his resume and credentials, Harris is hoping that 2022 will be the year that his work, along with the entrepreneurs it serves, is seen and valued completely, because as he explains, the success of Black businesses should matter to our society as a whole.

“We have to create a conscious culture and cooperative mindset in supporting Black businesses, because the opportunity is here to return Detroit as one of the more preeminent epicenters for Black entrepreneurship in the country,” Harris said emphatically. “And that would be extremely important to our overall economic recovery and revitalization as a city.”

True to his academic background, which includes bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Clark Atlanta and a Ph.D. in African American/African Studies and economics from Michigan State University, it is Harris’ way to defend his statements with extensive supporting data. But when explaining the importance of Black businesses to Detroit as a whole, he makes his strongest case by focusing on just a few numbers.

“Most people wouldn’t believe this, but 80% of the roughly 62,000 (2019 census data) businesses operated in Detroit are Black-owned. But most of those businesses don’t have any additional employees beyond the owner,” Harris said. “We should be viewing those businesses as untapped potential for growth, because if those businesses were to add one, two, three, or four more people, we could quadruple our economy. It’s simple math.”

Harris said a major reason that corporations, entrepreneurs, and the community at large should support the National Business League is because of the organization’s recent track record. He points to the earlier stages of the pandemic, during which he proudly reports his organization generated more than $20 million to assist rebuilding and innovation for national and Detroit businesses.

“In October of 2019, when the experts began talking about this potentially deadly disease, our leadership, led by National Chairman Thomas W. Dortch Jr., began thinking about how we could best support Black businesses in the event of this economic crisis,” said Harris, whose organization sells tier-level memberships to businesses and corporate partners. “And then January (2020) it hit the fan. And in March (2020), we had statewide shutdowns. But the NBL had already been partnering with government agencies and companies (including the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency, Stellantis, Comerica Bank, General Motors, and American Express) so that the organization could at least stand in the trenches for Black businesses.”

Along with expressing his gratitude to his governmental and corporate sponsors, Harris said Detroiters should be aware that long before the pandemic, there have been Black business and civic leaders across the city that have generously and strategically used the resources available to them to support Black businesses in Detroit for decades. When asked to name some of the more noteworthy supporters of Black businesses, Harris, not wanting to risk forgetting anyone, methodically took his time and put together a written list of deceased business and community leaders that he reveres. His list included: Brent Hamilton; Don Barden; Don Davis; Douglass Diggs; Glenn E. Wash; John Barfield; Kathie Dones-Carson; La-Van Hawkins; Marlowe Stoudamire; Mel Farr; Nathan Johnson; O’Neil D. Swanson; Ron Hall Sr.; Sam Logan; and Harris’ “personal mentor” William C. Brooks.

“If this was basketball, that list would make up my all-star team in the spiritual realm, and it’s fitting because each person supported the dreams of many Black entrepreneurs in this city,” said Harris, whose great uncle Dr. DeWitt T. Burton founded Wayne Diagnostic Hospital (later called Burton Mercy Hospital) at 271 Eliot with Dr. Chester Ames in 1939. “These people have joined the ancestors, but they should never be forgotten, especially by Detroit entrepreneurs and the community. And remembering these leaders is a part of holistic entrepreneurship. Sankofa means going back to reclaim to move forward. We as Black people need to take time and learn our history, because a people without knowledge of their history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

On the same evening that Harris discussed the importance of his list, he also shared his plans to visit Heritage Optical Center’s Livernois location on the morning of Jan. 21.

“As part of the NBL’s national platform, I have traveled extensively, lectured, and met with business leaders across the country; and it’s nothing like coming back home to your roots and visiting my tribe in Detroit’s Black business community like Heritage Optical, which has been in business for over 50 years.”

Harris said his visit to Heritage Optical would not be guided by an agenda, by choice. But if meeting with the Heritage Optical team leads to the implementation of new ideas down the road, he believes that would be a big win.

“Our organization doesn’t try to operate as CEOs for local Black businesses, instead we try to help the CEOs,” Harris explained. “But we always need to be looking for new and unconventional ways to support Black businesses as a whole, because the conventional ways simply haven’t worked well enough for everyone.”

Want to know more?

The National Business League 

What: “To promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro,” Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League on Aug. 23, 1900, in Boston. Along with being the first, today the National Business League is the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan and nonsectarian Black business professional and trade association. 

Detroit Leadership Connection: Ken Harris, President and Chief Executive Officer, kharris@nationalbusinessleague.org

Location: National Business League Midwest Regional Headquarters, 1001 Woodward, Suite 910, Detroit. Phone number, 313-818-3017.

Membership: The National Business League reports having more than 120,000 members nationwide and 125 Fortune 500 corporate partners. The membership includes chapters in all 50 states, along with international chapters. 

For more information: Go to www.nationalbusinessleague.org.

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