Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce Expands Outreach to Diverse Businesses

Business organization focuses on advancing equity in the private sector.

Kwame Asare, founder of Oh Shito!, one of the five recipients of IKEA grants from the Chamber to Black-owned businesses.
Kwame Asare, founder of Oh Shito!, one of the five recipients of IKEA grants from the Chamber to Black-owned businesses. Photo:

As the founder of Oh Shito!, a New Haven-based start-up, Kwame Asare hopes to popularize shito, a popular West African condiment in Ghana, from which Asare emigrated from at age ten. For Asare, who launched his company in 2021, food is about community. “There are many similarities among different cultures around food,” Asare said. “It’s really about how [food] makes people feel.”

Asare is learning that growing a business – particularly a minority-led one – is also about community. In New Haven, the focus on building an inclusive economy, and better supporting minority businesses and entrepreneurship is increasing, with the New Haven Chamber of Commerce playing a lead role. Last year, with support from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the Chamber created a new role – the Inclusive Growth Coordinator (IGC) – dedicated to actively recruit, support and connect BIPOC-led businesses like Asare’s.

And with good reason. Historically, minority-owned small businesses have faced heightened obstacles including higher costs to start a business and less access to capital. Data from a 2022 Intuit Quick Books survey of Black-owned businesses found that nearly 6 in 10 (57%) Black business owners were denied a bank loan compared to 37% of non-Black business owners. Additionally, it costs on average 31% more to start a Black-run business vs. non-Black, the survey found.

Those are the types of challenges that Jesse Phillips is helping minority businesses navigate as the New Haven Chamber’s Inclusive Growth Coordinator. “Our chamber has long supported diversity, but with the creation of my role, it’s become an even larger priority,” Phillips said. Under Phillips, the Chamber has built and strengthened strategic relationships with numerous minority associations, including Puerto Ricans United, Black Business Alliance, the Collaboration of Minority Women Professionals and KNOWNpreneurs, which runs a 16-week accelerator program that helps early-stage minority-owned ventures to scale their businesses.

Philips also played a lead role in assembling the Connecticut Black Expo in New Haven and supported the Chamber’s engagement with North Haven’s first annual town Pride Festival. Since Phillips assumed his role, the Chamber has quadrupled the size of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) council and added more than 70 minority-owned businesses to its membership.

Recognizing the 5 winning businesses of the IKEA Grant Program administered by the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce.
Recognizing the 5 winning businesses of the IKEA Grant Program administered by the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Contributed photo.

Garrett Sheehan, the Chamber’s President & CEO, said that while an increase in membership is welcome, it was not the primary purpose of the Inclusive Growth Coordinator role. “We wanted to foster more connections for BIPOC-owned companies to interact with the broader business community and create more opportunities for them,” Sheehan said. He added that potential misperceptions about the Chamber – that it’s only for downtown area companies or certain types of businesses – may have historically stifled minority engagement with the organization, but that’s changing rapidly.

The Chamber is not only raising awareness and visibility for minority owned businesses via monthly spotlights on its website, newsletter and email marketing campaigns, but it’s making new funding available, too. Last year, through an IKEA-funded initiative, the Chamber awarded five $5,000 grants to Black-owned businesses.

Kwame Asare was one of the recipients. He says the award money helped him purchase label applicators and a commercial-grade peeler for the vegetables that are the core ingredients of his company’s current portfolio of four shito products. The machines cut preparation time from three hours to 30 minutes, increasing Asare’s production to 400 jars per week. Over the past two years, Asare – who works by day for a FinTech company – has expanded his sales beyond online orders to include farmers markets. He is now attracting interest from mainstream grocers like Whole Foods and ShopRite.

To meet that growing demand, Asare says he needs to scale his business with a larger commercial kitchen space. He’s turned not only to Chamber staff for help, but also its members. “Multiple members have offered to help solve my current scaling issues,” Asare said.

Mentoring is particularly important, Asare said, for BIPOC-related businesses. “In the minority community, the fundamentals of building a business plan or creating financial projections are perhaps less taught,” said Asare. “Historically, there’s also been a bigotry of low expectations [for minority businesses].” Intuit Quick Books data show more than half (55%) of Black business owners would like more mentorship and 86% say Black businesses are judged more critically than non-Black ones.

Sheehan understands there are systemic challenges, including obstacles among minority-businesses in accessing the region’s supply chains. Phillips and the Chamber, Sheehan says, are making progress to improve supplier diversity under an initiative called Procurement Opportunities With Economic Results – or POWER.

For Sheehan, the Chamber’s Inclusive Growth Coordinator role is just the beginning. “Inclusive growth becomes part of every discussion around business,” he said. Phillips is encouraged by the Chamber’s progress – and the New Haven community’s response to a more inclusive economy. “We can take on more challenges and have a responsibility to address these issues,” Phillips said.