New chamber president, board set to make major push to promote, expand black businesses

From The News-Gazette's Black History Month 2013 section, published Feb. 10, 2013.

CHAMPAIGN — Will Kyles knows that it takes every individual to raise a community.

"I always say that when one sector of the community suffers, the community as a whole suffers," Kyles said.

And black business in Champaign County isn't doing so well. That's why Kyles, who took over as president of the Champaign County Black Chamber of Commerce in December, and his executive board have big plans for black businesses.

The Black Chamber of Commerce has had a local chapter in Champaign County for about eight years, Kyles said. He is hoping that, going forward, it can start significantly promoting and expanding African-American-owned businesses and employment opportunities.

He might have his work cut out for him. Just look around, Kyles said.

Ask him how the county is doing so far, and he will fire the question right back at you — how many black businesses can you name?

"There's not that many," Kyles said. "And because of the recession, jobs are still an issue."

When that happens, the whole county suffers, he said — look at any community with high unemployment and lack of opportunity.

"Those communities usually have high crime, high poverty," Kyles said.

Jobs are one of the key reasons the Black Chamber of Commerce and its efforts are necessary, Kyles said.

The point is not to work in competition with the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce or businesses owned by people of any other race. In fact, Kyles said that joining up with other organizations will be a key to the Black Chamber's success.

But the reality, Kyles said, is that good jobs are not always available to black people when there is a shortage of black business. Existing relationships are important, he said.

"We hire within our own comfort zones," Kyles said.

Herbert Burnett is one of the few black business owners in Champaign. He owns Suits By Soouljah on Bradley Avenue, and he has joined with Kyles as the outreach coordinator for the Black Chamber.

His No. 1 priority, he said, is getting people to shop local and keep the money in the community. His other goal: "Get people to believe that they can own their own business."

Kyles thinks a good start for him might be to work with what's already here, even though it might not be physically present — the burgeoning at-home or online businesses.

"We can build with what we have," Kyles said. "There are a lot of people who don't have brick and mortar and are looking to expand."

Another key initiative is workforce development. Kyles and Burnett are excited about a Feb. 27 conference at the I Hotel, where 23 Black Chamber of Commerce chapters from around the state will join for workshops and planning.

First Fridays is a Black Chamber event that focuses on networking. It has been going on for a while and will continue to be a focus, Kyles said.

Another opportunity will be tech training. For some people, Kyles said, launching an online business might be the best option as long as they know how to do it.

"It's a real easy way for someone who doesn't have the money for a brick-and-mortar business to start a business from home and be successful," Kyles said.

Between getting the word out and having a fresh perspective at the head of the Black Chamber, Burnett said, the future is promising.

"I think it starts with the Black Chamber," Burnett said. "I think Will (Kyles) is going to be a great visionary."

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