As the economic development engine for the region, Prosper Portland is very intentional about becoming an anti-racist organization and doing so from the inside out. Kimberly Branam, Executive Director of Prosper Portland shares the work that her organization is doing to lead the way in inclusion and economic equity for Black businesses and communities of color.

Since 2015 we have really been focused on building an equitable economy to our strategic plan. We acknowledge that we’re on our journey to becoming an anti-racist organization. And that means fundamentally rethinking almost everything that we do. There is no economic development without economic equity.

Episode Highlights:

  • 01:54 – With support from the City Council, Prosper Portland launched a $1 million Small Business Relief Fund as loans and grants specifically to Black businesses as a relief to the challenges with accessing capital.
  • 03:03 – Even prior to COVID, the organization was intentional about economic and racial equity and had both the non-profit and private sector investors working towards solutions.
  • 06:06 – Kimberly shares how the athletic and outdoor sector used their design experience in producing PPE.
  • 08:14 – As a commitment to helping companies grow by being inclusive, Prosper Portland’s holistic approach goes beyond access to capital and includes hiring and retention, business planning, policy action, and even peer-to-peer mentoring to help minority businesses grow.
  • 12:08 – Kimberly shares the organization’s journey to becoming anti-racist and to embed it in the fabric of everything it does.

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Episode Transcript:

Kimberly Branam  00:00
Since 2015 we have really been focused on building an equitable economy to our strategic plan. We’ve learned a lot over those five years, we’re still learning. We make a lot of mistakes just like anyone in that journey, but given the economic shock, we really prioritize and we’re able to deploy over 90% of those resources to Black-owned businesses or Black indigenous people of color.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  00:37
Fabiola Fleuranvil of Blueprint Creative Group, we provide strategic communications council during times of opportunity, change and crisis and obviously. While we’re coming out of this COVID-19 crisis, our focus with our industry is on recovery and resiliency. You’re tuning into the Economic Development podcast, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Kimberly Branam of Prosper Portland.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  01:06
So I’m actually excited to talk with you. Just because I know that obviously, industries have been disrupted, and particularly with industries that your region tends to focus on. I’m sure that there was a lot of disruption, particularly in your athletic and outdoor industry, obviously, your green cities, but one of the stats that I really wanted to speak with you on, is the income and asset disparity of communities of color as is posted on your website. And I also noticed that Prosper Portland is working aggressively towards this initiative. So between the grants that I’ve noticed that you’ve been offering on business diversity and inclusion and even how you’ve been supporting local businesses during this time, that’s remarkable. So can you share some of that with us?

Kimberly Branam  01:54
Absolutely. Happy to do that. You know, we have really had a three fold approach. We’ve addressed the pandemic and economic shock. And the first is to provide immediate stop-gap relief to small Black, indigenous and other people of color on businesses to maintain their operations until such time as state and federal resources become widely available. So, as you mentioned, this has taken the form of the Small Business Relief Fund, which is a series of grants and loans that were specifically intended to support our business owners of color who, as you know, have traditionally had challenges accessing capital at the same rate as white male entrepreneurs. And that’s been exacerbated given the economic shock. And so we really prioritize and we’re able to deploy over 90% of those resources to Black-owned businesses and black indigenous people of color. We did that through partnership and the city council appropriated a million dollars for us.

Kimberly Branam  03:03
We managed the applications and the selection and worked with nonprofits, some of which are culturally specific to help disperse some government dollars. We had private sector investors, who also through our safe community foundation, in a highly collaborative effort, were able to help augment those resources. You know, we have since 2015, really been focused on building an equitable economy, to our strategic plan. We’ve learned a lot over those five years, we’re still learning. We make a lot of mistakes, just like anyone in that journey. But we certainly feel like those relationships and the programs that we have built over the last five years with a focus on racial equity have helped to make sure that we were prepared given the economic disparities that we saw before COVID. And today, as we’re seeing that the pandemic has exacerbated the need to really address racial equity.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  04:03
Well that’s remarkable and a testament to industry and community working collaboratively, particularly in moments of stress. So when you mentioned the loans and the grants that you’re offering to Black and minority businesses, there’s a lot of published data and reports out there that suggests that a lot of the funding that came from the top from the federal government didn’t always make its way down to either small businesses or even Black and minority businesses. So am I correct to assume that a lot of your financial support that you provided made up for some of that gap or even the shortage? 

Kimberly Branam  04:40
Well, I think it’s important to be honest about the scale of funding that’s available from the federal government and the magnitude of resources that were available through the PPP program. We see the same data and have seen that both through data and just anecdotal. We’ve heard that for a lot of businesses and by people of color that didn’t have pre-existing banking relationships. It was really a challenge to access those federal funds. So, we certainly were well aware of that, and would like to be able to deploy even more capital to support these businesses to try to address what at least in the first round was really lack of access to those crucial federal funds.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  05:36
Good. So let’s shift to your industry. So Portland’s main industries are athletic and outdoor, which obviously has been one of those that have been significantly impacted by the shut in orders and quarantining and social distancing, but also in machinery, green cities, technology and the media. So, let’s talk about athletic and outdoor. What’s been some of the shifts or pivots that you’ve seen from this sector that obviously came out of ingenuity or just innovation?

Kimberly Branam  06:06
As you mentioned, we are a global center of athletic and outdoor and our industry is on-par with Tokyo or Boston or Munich and LA. So we definitely punch above our weight within the athletic and outdoor industry given the size of Portland. And we have terrific companies within our region like Nike, Adidas North America, Columbia Sportswear and Keene, but also some smaller businesses. We have kind of a traditional cluster, and then companies like Weiden & Kennedy and other professional services that are well positioned to support the industry.

So we saw Nike, for example, within just a matter of weeks, come up with a really innovative face shield in collaboration with Oregon Health and Science University and used their design expertise to get out there and make a difference in adjusting and supporting our health care workers. We’ve seen a number of our athletic and outdoor industry partners get into Personal Protective Equipment in terms of face coverings and the like. We’re not yet seeing a significant impact in terms of the downturn in consumer spending. So I think we’re we’re just keeping a close eye on that and are in close conversations with our partners to think about, as this continues, how can we support them in being innovative, maintaining their competitiveness and potentially addressing that difference in consumer spending,

Fabiola Fleuranvil  07:44
So as it relates to continuing to grow some of these industries, just from a macro-level, what do you think Prosper Portland’s shift will be even though we know that there are still a lot of uncertainty?You’re still monitoring certain trends, but I’m sure that there’s been a lot of ideas or even opportunities that have presented itself that would probably not have been magnified prior to the pandemic. So what does the shift look like now in terms of economic development initiatives moving forward?

Kimberly Branam  08:14
Within our traded sector cluster action plans just in the last few years really clarified what our goals are, and these remain through to COVID. As we get into economic recovery, first and foremost, is helping companies become more inclusive, and helping inclusive companies grow. Our sweet spot as a local economic development agency is really working with traded sector companies that are smaller. So think five employees to 100 or 200 employees. Above that we often find that, state policies or federal policies can be particularly impactful or even just thinking about the local talent pool that really matters, but we will continue to think about how do we help companies become more inclusive through hiring through retention and through culture change efforts to make sure that those companies remain relevant and remain competitive.

We know that more diverse companies outperform those that are not. And so that’ll be a continued focus of ours, and then helping inclusive companies grow. So that’ll mean looking at innovative ways that we can increase access to capital. We, for example, have an ADA loan product that we are retooling in light of COVID to make sure that it’s really supporting our small local traded sector companies, especially those that are led by diverse teams.

We’re also thinking about how we retool our peer-to-peer programs. So bringing people together and having conversations or uncommon challenges, whether that’s around capital, whether that’s around human resources, whether that’s around business planning, we find that sometimes just facilitating and creating a table for companies in the same industry to engage with one another can be a really effective way for them to learn more than if there’s just one technical assistance provider supporting an individual firm. Oftentimes through those conversations, we hear what are some common elements that we’re able to address through policy interventions or programs or new partnerships.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  10:33
You mentioned inclusivity and diversity a lot and it’s definitely all over Prosper Portland’s website and all of your content and materials. So this certainly seems like a big component to how you see economic inclusion in your region. So when did this start? Was there a shift or something significant, a major milestone in your region that shifted, or even magnifies the need to really focus on inclusion and diversity?

Kimberly Branam  11:04
So, in about 2008 or 2009, right around the time that we had our great recession, a group of community organizations got together through the Coalition of Communities of Color, and they put together what was called an Unsettling Report, which really showed how communities of color in our region of Multnomah County and our district disproportionately have lower incomes, disproportionately have poorer health outcomes, disproportionately have access to employment, and are disproportionately invested in a negative way. And I think that began at a broader scale in the kinds of conversations that have been happening within communities for a long time, but it really was this clarion call that we needed to do things differently.

Kimberly Branam  12:08
Over the that time period about the last 10 or 11 years, each of our organizations, I think, has met that challenge in different ways. Certainly, we started thinking about how we could do community-led, community-driven work in our economic development and urban development initiatives in partnership with the community. And that started us to really rethink how we do racial equity focused work in terms of building cities and building our neighborhoods.

Over time that’s morphed into a more holistic approach so that it’s not just a specific program or an approach in one part of what our agency does, but it’s really become a foundational part of everything that we do. I want to be clear that we have not figured it all out, we still make mistakes every day. Every institution in the United States, we have a racist history. We acknowledge that we’re on our journey to becoming an anti-racist organization. And that means fundamentally rethinking almost everything that we do.

Kimberly Branam  13:18
But we have a sense of purpose about it. And, the one thing that I would say is that early on, I think there was some skepticism from maybe traditional economic development partners or traditional development partners that we were becoming the social service agency, or, you know, we weren’t really focused on economic development anymore. And I would say to them that if economic development is not inclusive it’s fundamentally insufficient. We know that local economies that are diverse and Inclusive outperform those that aren’t. So this is not a side project. This is not something that is ancillary. This really is a fundamental element of what we need to be doing as economic professionals. We’re thinking about who benefits, who’s burdened, and how can people really participate in creating economic opportunities. So that is a big focus of our work and our learning today.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  14:25
Well, you know, that certainly means that you were well ahead of the current climate since the protests and the call for equality and given the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. So Prosper Portland was well ahead with your diversity and inclusion initiatives. So certainly that means that you are even stronger now in the midst of what’s happening and the wake up call. So that’s a testament to the work that you’re doing at your organization and regionally.

Kimberly Branam  14:57
I think we feel like this has been one of the one of the silver linings or one of the things that has been a positive in what’s been otherwise a very challenging time in the way that our region has come together, and the way that we’ve been able to interface with economic development professionals across our country.

So I want to give a shout out to Bobby Lee, who’s the Director of the Office of Economic Development in Seattle, but he’s created a table for a number of economic development organizations who are facing similar challenges across the country to come together. It’s been really rich to be able to talk about our experience and hear from others, and we learned a lot in that. I think we have seen through those conversations that the work that we’ve done over the last few years to really have an equity focus, to engage in partnerships with cultures with civic organizations and chambers, and to do the training has positioned us in a positive way, at this moment. But I also think it’s important to just acknowledge the backdrop of the state of Oregon and the City of Portland and even the history of my own organization, which really is very racist past.

Kimberly Branam  16:17
And so I think it’s possible that there are things that we’re doing. And that way that we’ve been more explicit, just because that’s what our region really needs. So we don’t stand at any way, you know, from a point of like, Oh, we’ve got it figured out or we’re doing it, we’re doing it better. I think we knew that we had a lot of work to do. And we still feel like that’s the case. But we’re so appreciative of community for encouraging us to make those steps and as the partners who have helped with this transformation over the last five years.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  16:47
Well, you know, as you so beautifully said earlier, that there is no economic development without economic equity. And I think that’s the best way to summarize everything that you’ve said and everything that your organization continues to do.

Kimberly Branam  17:00
Well, we certainly believe that and we really appreciate the time and the ability to connect with you and with others who are in this space, as we learn together in this unbelievably unprecedented time in our, in our cities and nation’s history. 

Fabiola Fleuranvil  17:15
Times like this calls on us to learn together because there is a lot of uncertainty, and no one really quite knows the near future. I don’t even want to say the future, but the near future of our industry and what the outlook looks like. So having these shared conversations and learning from each other is probably our best approach to figure out the right solutions together and collaboratively.

Kimberly Branam  17:38
I couldn’t agree more.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  17:39
Okay, so I just want to thank you again for joining the podcast.

Kimberly Branam  17:43
Well, thank you so much for the opportunity.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  17:45
Thanks again for tuning in to the economic development podcast presented by Blueprint Creative Group. There’s more episodes featuring economic development leaders throughout the country. And we thank all of the participants for sharing their perspectives Got all of the episodes in this series at blueprintcreativegroup.com/economicdevelopment.

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