We Need a Black Economic Renaissance

Your Take: Innovation and entrepreneurship are the only ways to combat African-American unemployment.

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I grew up in a small town in South Carolina, where the textile industry was once the mainstay of our local economy. Connected to that textile economy was a vibrant black business district called the Hill. It was our black Wall Street, reminiscent of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta and Harlem in New York City. It was where one could find doctors' and lawyers' offices, mom-and-pop retail stores, restaurants, fresh-seafood markets and of course barbershops, beauty salons and funeral homes.

We didn't have Starbucks, but we had the Nick Nack Café, where friends and family gathered. When we were kids, local businessmen were our role models and taught us important life lessons. The Hill wasn't just where we bought products and services; it was the epicenter and nucleus of our social organization.

Nonetheless, the textile industry has dried up, and the Hill, as I knew it, is gone. It's been replaced by empty storefronts and hollowed-out buildings. Unfortunately, this same story has played out in cities and towns across the country, including Detroit, where auto-parts factories have shut down; and Gary, Ind., where steel plants have disappeared.

These communities have been left reeling, with few, if any, good-paying jobs and a dismantled social structure. Consequently, young, capable men end up unemployed and disengaged from the larger society instead of working in advanced manufacturing plants or in local businesses. This chronic joblessness often lies at the root of many of our social problems, such as crime, neighborhood decay and broken families.

No Easy Solution 

This is a problem that defies easy solutions. We simply can't revitalize overnight communities that have lost thousands of jobs. And new corner stores or barbershops certainly won't make up for the closing of factories. Targeted government programs help, but private-sector investment is critical for sustained community development.

We must think bigger and encourage more black innovators and entrepreneurs to develop high-growth, high-demand companies in industries such as clean energy, biotechnology and health care. That also means investing more in job training and education -- particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) -- in recognition that kids from Anacostia in D.C. aren't competing just with kids from Boston but also with youngsters from Shanghai and Bangalore.

We must understand the global marketplace and be a part of it by selling our goods and services across the world. Consider that 95 percent of the world's consumers live outside our borders, yet only 2 percent of U.S. companies export to them. I recently traveled to China to help launch a new joint venture that will manufacture car components in Mississippi and sell energy-efficient vehicles in China. We can do business abroad while creating jobs at home.

The combined effect of innovation, entrepreneurship and international trade can create unlimited economic possibilities. Imagine if we had more high-tech companies based in economically distressed areas. Imagine if there were more companies like black-owned Volt Energy, which installs solar panels on churches and homes in urban communities.

Imagine if historically black colleges and universities united to develop and commercialize new health care technologies that provide solutions to diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Imagine if rural black farmers had Internet access in order to market and sell their produce through the global supply chain. If we did more of these things, we could develop a new economy, create high-paying jobs, improve people's lives and transform communities.