By Roy L. Williams
Although the 2021 A.G. Gaston Conference will be held virtually February 23-24 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it could not come at a better time. This year’s conference will expand on many of the principles that Dr. Gaston lived by as he built several successful businesses during a time when it was tough for Black businesses to be successful. Entrepreneurs and Black business owners can learn lessons from Dr. Gaston as they cope with the fallout of the worst global health crisis in over a century.
One key to coping is following Dr. Gaston’s mindset – “Find a Need and Fill it” -which enabled him to build a business empire that led Black Enterprise magazine to name him the “BE’s 1992 Entrepreneur of the Century”. Gaston also famously stated “Money has no color. If you can build a better mousetrap, it won’t matter whether if you’re black or white, people will buy it.”
It has been well documented that Black businesses and workers have been hardest hit by lost revenue and layoffs caused by the pandemic, but there are opportunities available for entrepreneurs who are savvy enough to develop creative business ideas in today’s changing landscape.
AG Gaston grew up in Alabama as a Black man amidst an atmosphere of poverty and racism, however, despite less than favorable conditions he tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit and filled many needs, thus his motto “find a need and fill it”.
Beginning with the Booker T. Washington Insurance in 1923, Gaston founded a business empire that also included a bank, a funeral home, a construction company and radio stations. And by the time of his death in 1996 at the age of 103, Gaston had become a multi-millionaire and created hundreds of jobs throughout Birmingham.
In many respects Black Americans in 2021 are facing obstacles similar to Gaston a century ago, as systemic racism continues and the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the impact is having a more severe affect on businesses owned by people of color, causing massive job loss in industries that have adversely affected African-American and Latino workers. A brief from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released last August found that Black-owned businesses failed at nearly twice the rate of other firms during the COVID-19 pandemic. These realities have created an even greater urgency for Black entrepreneurs and businesses to find a need and fill it.
Gaston’s life story of overcoming obstacles through determination, and not letting racism deter him from his dreams should be an inspiration to African-Americans today.
Although African American communities have been hit hard, Black entrepreneurs who follow Gaston’s vision can succeed even amidst this pandemic. While he lacked a high school education, Gaston was savvy enough to know how to take advantage of business opportunities even in tough times, and visionaries can do the same today.
While the pandemic has caused job loss and impacted the way we do business, it has also created opportunities. There are opportunities for businesses specializing in cleaning and disinfecting workplaces where COVID infections have occurred, or in offices that need to outsource to fill demand and protect workers and customers from the disease. For businesses specializing in delivering take-out meals which have surged as fewer customers are dining out in restaurants. Companies that make or sell face masks and hand sanitizers, also have a chance to take advantage of the pandemic and the list goes on. And as we navigate this pandemic now more than ever Dr. Gaston’s guiding principle to find a need and fill it applies.
Within the last couple weeks, the Associated Press spotlighted Rodney Bonds, a New York entrepreneur who has been expanding his BK Lobster franchise in the midst of COVID-19. He has sold 18 BK Lobster franchises across the country (BK stands for Brooklyn), including one currently under construction on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue.
He explained his mindset for succeeding despite COVID-19 stating that you have to say to yourself, “am I going to make these conditions change my vision or am I going to adapt around the conditions,”
Bob Dickerson, founder and executive director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center (BBRC) and the AG Gaston Conference (AGGC) co-founder along with Gaynelle Jackson, says “entrepreneurs, even in the best of times, have to be willing to try and beat the odds and overcome obstacles, those that do will reap the benefits”.
AG Gaston was born in 1892, he was 26 years old during the deadly Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, you have to wonder if that is when he adopted the philosophy of “find a need and fill” we will never know, however we do know that in 2021 as African Americans we have access to more resources than he did to be successful. In Birmingham we have had the AG Gaston Conference since 2004, and 2021 may be the most important year when this conference can help achieve your vision, don’t miss it.
The 2021 A.G. Gaston Conference is taking place virtually February 23-24. The conference is free to the public and the registration portal can be assessed at www.aggastonconference.biz.