Ellen Shaw last week became the second president of the Orange County Black Chamber of Commerce, succeeding one of its founders, Aaron Lovejoy. The 3-year-old chamber, which has 80 members, faces a special challenge in a county where blacks make up less than 2% of the population. Shaw, 47, moved to the West Coast from Louisiana five years ago. She is an administrative assistant in the legal department of Carl Karcher Enterprises Inc., based in Anaheim. Shaw recently spoke with Times staff writer Susan Christian.
What are your goals as the Black Chamber’s new president?
Due to the depressed economy, a lot of companies are downsizing. That means there are more African-Americans being laid off with funds to start businesses. We want to be there to give them support from the beginning--to help them write a business plan, set goals, get additional capital.
One of my big things is that I want to start a mentor program, in which large corporations and successful minority-owned small businesses help nurture new businesses along.
I also want to have an outreach program so that people considering going into business can contact us. We can make sure there is a market for their business, and that they have long-range goals--not just the monthly goal of paying the bills. We want them to become employers with employees.
It sounds as though you would like the chamber to be more of a place to come for advice.
Right. I want it to be a business advocate.
Another goal: We have a scholarship fund for minority students. We were able to raise $30,000 last year, and this coming year we’d like to double that. We would like more minority students to have the opportunity to go to college, which eventually will create more business people.
In areas that have a larger black population, blacks tend to patronize black-owned businesses. Is it harder for black-owned companies to survive in Orange County?
It’s one of the reasons that a lot of black-owned businesses fail--we don’t know where they are so we don’t give them our black dollar. We’re missing a lot of income by not having a centralized location.
Hopefully, the chamber can come up with its own directory to let black businesses know what it has to offer. For instance, if you need computer training, we have a black-owned business that can offer you this training.
Which is not to say that we want to take dollars away from other communities--we just want black-owned businesses to stay viable, profitable and productive.
Tell us something about yourself. What brought you to Orange County?
I came here in 1987 from Monroe, La.
My daughter decided that she wanted to go to school in California. She’s my only child, and I’d been a single mom since she was 5. I was physically ill (about her leaving) for two weeks, but I finally consented. She finished college, got married, and said: “My life would be complete if you were here.” I packed my bags and came.
What did you do in Monroe?
Most recently, I was an administrative assistant at a computer center owned by a local bank. I was also a real estate broker.
I was the first black in the city of Monroe to be hired by a white-owned company. This was in 1964, right after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Out of 300 employees, I was the only black. I’ll never forget: People would not talk to me unless it was business related; I had people say: “Do not speak to me one minute after 5 o’clock.”
But by the time I left the company, I had many, many friends. When I went there, I had preconceptions about non-minorities just like they had preconceptions about nonwhites. We were able to start communicating and understanding that some of the things we had heard about each other just weren’t true--our only difference was our outward appearance.
That is one of the reasons I support the Black Chamber, the Hispanic Chamber, the Korean-American Chamber and the Vietnamese Chamber. They are vehicles for communication. And communication helps people feel more comfortable with the people they feel least comfortable with.
How did you first become interested in the Black Chamber?
A friend of mine set up a luncheon with Aaron Lovejoy (the outgoing president of the Black Chamber), and Aaron invited me to a chamber mixer. I told him that I thought you had to be a business owner to be a member of the chamber. He said: “No, since we’re so small, if you’re interested, energetic and committed you can have an individual membership.”
Before I joined, I was lost. I had no place to feel my roots. You go to the grocery store, you go to the mall, and you don’t see any other blacks. I came from a community where you could walk down the street and see other African-Americans. You can’t do that here. So there’s really a benefit in having a place where you can come together with your people--it’s like being at a family reunion.
How would you compare your experiences as a businesswoman here to those in Louisiana--modern-day Louisiana?
It’s 180 degrees different. In the South, it’s almost like time has stood still.
As a real estate broker, I used to get threatening calls at night saying: “We don’t want those people in our neighborhood.” When I wanted to show a house, I always had to produce my credentials; whereas a friend who was white just had to call up and, bingo, the keys were there. People in Orange County tend to be more sophisticated and tend to have comfortable lives.
If we had more poverty you would see more racism, because people often blame others for their problems. I find it easy to have access to a lot of opportunities here. There were so many hurdles to cross in Louisiana. But I’m the kind of person who if you put a hurdle in front of me, I’m going to find a way to get over it, under it or around it.
On racism in American business. . .
“Companies still hire people they feel most comfortable with. Even if they want to hire a minority, they hire the minority with whom they feel most comfortable.”
On the function of minority chambers. . .
“Some people say, why do you need a Black Chamber? If you want to know something, I believe you should go to the source. If I want to know more about the Hispanic culture, I go to the Hispanic Chamber.”
On the makeup of the Black Chamber. . .
“The name does not limit membership only to black Americans. We have several white members, as well as corporate members.”
On the importance of minority businesses. . .
“The solution to a depressed economy is to create more minority and small businesses, which eventually will bring our economy back to where we want it to be.”