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Alexandria leaders push more equity for minority-owned businesses and stronger business associations

As the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership works through programs aimed at helping to strengthen the city’s business communities post-Covid, some in the organization and partnering groups are working to ensure there’s a greater diversity of voices in the new order.

A new grant program, the ALX B2B Business Association Grant Program, aims to help prop up business associations across the city to make them more active and helpful for their communities. The city-funded grant program is in the process of distributing $535,000 in grant funding across eight associations.

AEDP Economic Recovery Manager Senay Gebremedhin and Kevin Harris, former City Council candidate and head of the new Alexandria Minority Business Association, said the goal of the grant program is in part to use the pandemic recovery to help address issues around diversity that predate and were exacerbated by Covid.

Gebremedhin said AEDP’s goal is to use the funding as a boost to business associations to get them to a place where they can be healthy and independently sustainable long-term, without relying on backing from pandemic recovery funding to provide higher levels of service.

“When we built out the program, we intentionally built out sustainability as a core purpose,” Gebremedhin said. “The funding was short-term, so applicants had an understanding that they needed to continue services beyond the funding period.”

The grant funding is going to eight different organizations, ranging from established groups like the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce to brand new organizations like Harris’ Alexandria Minority Business Association.

  • Alexandria Chamber of Commerce
  • Alexandria Minority Business Association, Inc.
  • Del Ray Business Association
  • Eisenhower Avenue Public-Private Partnership
  • Old Town Business Association
  • Old Town North Alliance
  • Social Responsibility Group
  • West End Business Association (WEBA)

Many of the organizations have been volunteer-led, and Gebremedhin said in the past they’ve struggled to sustain initiatives without proper funding or infrastructure support. Even among the more established organizations, Gebremedhin said nearly all of them have seen leadership turnover in recent years.

While the program distributes funding to regional associations like the Del Ray Business Association, the new Social Responsibility Group and the Alexandria Minority Business Association target specific issues within the sphere of local economic development. Gebremedhin said the Social Responsibility Group works with AEDP on communications with local business incubators.

“One of the priorities for our group is creating peer relationships,” Gebremedhin said. “The Social Responsibility Group has a much broader agenda, but our work is narrowly focused with them on one of the pillars of their agency… incubators and building resources for emerging businesses in Alexandria.”

According to Harris, not all businesses have been able to participate in influential policy discussions between the city and the business community. He said he hopes the Alexandria Minority Business Association gives new minority voices a similar chance to weigh in.

“When things are rolled out, there is some communication with other business associations to weigh in on how things are rolled out,” Harris said. “There is a need for that in the minority community.”

While some minority businesses are often represented in regional associations, Harris said there are issues around communication with minority communities and representation that require more of a unified voice.

“We saw there was a gap in terms of the ability to bring all the different minority business owners together,” Harris said. “The issues minority small business owners face are too large to be siloed by community; it takes collaboration. Being siloed by [location-based] communities waters down our voice. This lets us be a strong enough unit to get our agenda together.”

Harris said the Alexandria Minority Business Association’s mission is two-way communication with the city. It gets information from the city to minority-owned businesses, which often can be disconnected from the larger Alexandria networks. It also ensures that those groups have a voice in citywide discussions about business policy.

“The biggest thing outside of information is influence in city business policy,” Harris said. “A lot of times city leans on business owners in the city and leans on specific business organizations. We want to make sure our voices are part of that discussion.”

Gebremedhin said AEDP is working on distributing funding to the associations, with that money starting to transfer hopefully before the end of the year.

“I’m most excited about collaboration occurring through all of this,” Harris said. “This is an opportunity to connect with other business associations to make the city’s business environment stronger, to help grow all of our businesses, and make the city more favorable to small businesses. I’m glad AEDP and the city saw the need to create something like this.”

Gebremedhin said that hopefully, the grant funding will help make the business associations more valuable to business owners. If readers want to become members of the associations, they are listed on the AEDP website or Gebremedhin said businesses can reach out to him directly at [email protected] to be connected.

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