by Latrice Williams
For nearly 25 years, Richard Hooker has pioneered efforts to bridge the gap between marginalized business owners and community leaders in Cleveland County.
In 1997, Hooker, who is the executive director for the Cleveland County Business Development Center, brought Minority Enterprise Development week to the county, knowing it would be a small steppingstone that would lead to bigger opportunities for African Americans and other races to have the spotlight on them, their business and their leadership qualities.
MED Week celebrates those achievements at the national and local level, and Hooker said he is proud of the growth he has seen in Cleveland County thus far.
“We wanted to recognize our minority business community who have demonstrated a lot of success,” said Hooker. “A lot of times they get overlooked. We want to applaud them for what they have done and not wait for others to recognize their accomplishments.”
A call for change
As minority leaders prepare to celebrate MED Week. Oct. 17-23, Hooker wants to see a transformation take place within the county, saying progress has been ebb and flow. He cited a drop in family-owned businesses as one of the contributing factors.
“It kind of comes and goes,” said Hooker. “It’s also a generational kind of thing. Some of the older businesses we started with, many of them have retired and some have died, and then you have a new generation and a different way of doing things.”
Hooker, who has lived in Cleveland County for 40 plus years, said there is still more that needs to be done to ensure minorities get the support they need to take their career to new heights.
He too has experienced the ups and down of being a minority business owner. Still, he enjoys the liberty of creating his own wealth and being a reliable asset to the community. He opened his business development center in 1992 and Hooker Bonding Services in 1999.
“It certainly has been a struggle,” said Hooker. “But it also has been liberating. I can determine my success and failures and learn from those. It wasn’t necessarily about trying to make a lot of money. I wanted to have the flexibility and adaptability to enjoy different activities.”
Hooker reached the climax of his success in 2013. He called it a pivotal year where he was recognized as one of the top school board members and was appointed to the state board of education. He credits his relationships in and outside of work for allowing him to receive that accolade.
His key to advancing in his career has been going the extra mile to achieve “local sustainability.”
“What has allowed me to thrive all these years is good customer service, building relationships and collaborating,” said Hooker.
For younger entrepreneurs, Hooker said it is going to take a strong group of forward thinkers to move things in the right direction.
More than two dozen minorities call Uptown Shelby home for their business.
“I do envision someone taking over the vision and the time and skillset to take it to the next level,” said Hooker. “We need some new energy and leaders. I also think the ability to come together and work together and provide additional resources would help.”
Economic prosperity for all
Banks have become even more selective about who they lend money to, and small businesses tend to be on the outside looking in. Hooker said long gone are the days when lending companies celebrated mom and pop shops and is hopeful banks will consider giving young entrepreneurs a chance.
“Financial institutions have changed,” said Hooker. “They used to help with smaller loans and micro loans. Now, they tend to go to larger businesses. Financial resources are a big hindrance to the minority business flourishing. Those things have hindered businesses not just in Cleveland County but nationally. It’s not a local issue – its systemic.”
Hooker has reached out to state legislatures to enact a bill that would provide funding for minorities but said he has not gained much traction.
Still, Hooker said those wanting to be their own boss should rely on the resources readily available to them. He pointed to Steve Padgett, director of the small business center at Cleveland Community College, as being a reliable outlet.
Gov. Roy Cooper ordained October 2021 as Minority Enterprise Development Month to acknowledge the achievements of minority businesses.
“Historically underutilized businesses are an asset to our state’s workforce and economy and play a critical role in our state’s innovation and success,” said Cooper.
Minorities make up just 19.3% of business in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. North Carolina Department of Administration Secretary Pamela Cashwell said the time for change is now.
“The pandemic has been challenging for all of us, but particularly for communities of color who were hit the hardest,” said Cashwell. “While we take this opportunity to celebrate the many achievements of our minority businesses, we also must continue providing resources to help these enterprises thrive post-pandemic.”
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