On Monday, June 3, AEO president and CEO, Natalie Madeira Cofield participated in a panel discussion during an event presented by the Center for Community Uplift (CCU) at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC. The “Paths to Progress” event, under the leadership of Senior Fellow Andre M. Perry, and co-hosted by HUMANLEVEL is an initiative founded by artist and activist John Legend, focused on promoting systemic change and racial equity across American communities. The event aimed to explore how various racial groups perceive their progress on measures of well-being and economic security, framing racial equity as a critical issue for the upcoming U.S. presidential election. 

One of the event’s highlights was the “Business and Homeownership” panel, moderated by Rashawn Ray, a Senior Fellow for Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. This panel brought together prominent leaders to discuss the intersection of business, homeownership, and racial equity.

Click here to watch the discussion.

During the panel discussion, Natalie Cofield shared valuable insights into the policies and initiatives driving economic security and wealth creation. Here are three high-level takeaways from her remarks, illustrating the impactful work being done and the continued need for support. 

1. Expanding Opportunities for Underserved Entrepreneurs

The 8(a) Business Development Program created more Black millionaires than any other federal initiative. Despite its success, there is a constant challenge to maintain and expand programs supporting diverse, underserved entrepreneurs. “The beauty is that everyone in this room can see someone in their family reflected in the definition of underserved,” Cofield emphasized, underscoring the broad and inclusive nature of these policies. By focusing on expanding opportunities rather than merely dividing existing resources, these initiatives can significantly benefit Main Streets across the nation. 

2. Strengthening Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs)

Historically, access to capital has been facilitated through community banks and local financial institutions. Recently, we have witnessed a shift with CDFIs become fintech organizations or large financial institutions embark on becoming CDFIs. This evolution signifies that “Main Street knows how to connect with Main Street,” as evidenced by the $165 billion in capital dispersed to small businesses. 

The importance of supporting CDFIs cannot be overstated. “When was the last time you walked into a local bank?” Cofield asked, underscoring the vital role these institutions play in investing in local community businesses. 

3. Enhancing Federal Procurement for Small Businesses

Under the Biden-Harris administration, federal contracting and procurement goals were exceeded, with $178 billion spent by unbundling large contracts to include smaller businesses in the procurement pipeline. AEO’s forthcoming Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) report focusing on small businesses highlights the significance of micro-procurement pipelines. During the pandemic, the supply chain became a critical topic, yet many are unaware of their local supply chains. Policies that enhance this understanding and support these initiatives are crucial. Ongoing involvement in the appropriations process is crucial to ensure these programs receive continued funding and attention.  

Continued Support 

There needs to be a multifaceted approach to sustaining support for small businesses, particularly as COVID-19 relief funding diminishes. There needs to be emphasis placed on ecosystems that support these businesses and the role of private and philanthropic sectors in bridging gaps left by government funding.  

“Government is not the only solution. It is the beginning of changing the narrative and creating the opportunity for the next solution,” Cofield remarked, encouraging collaborative efforts to sustain and build upon existing support structures. 

As we continue to navigate economic challenges, it is crucial to advocate for and invest in policies that support underserved small businesses, entrepreneurs and local financial institutions. Engage with your community, support local businesses, and participate in the policy-making process to ensure these vital programs receive the attention and funding they deserve. Together, we can create a more inclusive and prosperous future for all. 

At AEO, we remain committed to empowering underserved small businesses and entrepreneurs and advocating for policies that drive equitable economic growth.