Tom Gegax started his business career as a Shell Oil representative on Chicago's south side in 1968.
He sold fuel, tires and other products to 14 Black independent retailers. Gegax, a rookie, was assigned the last-place territory, a group of station owners who were treated unfairly by predecessors. It took awhile to build the relationship.
"They trusted me because I was straight with them about costs, prices, taxes and I cleaned every single tire on the racks in that territory for those Black dealers," he recalled. "We were business partners. And that territory went from last to first in the Chicago area. We all benefited. I came to know them and their families. We socialized together."
That's what happens in an inclusive economy.
Gegax, now in his 70s, eventually moved to the Twin Cities, started Tires Plus, sold it after 25 years and retired to a life of consulting and philanthropy in Minneapolis and San Diego.
In an interview, he said he was shaken by George Floyd's death in police hands in May and that he believed racism has impeded the education, opportunity, employment, income and wealth of Black people.
Gegax spent $275,000 to produce a 30-minute public-service video that outlines the history of systemic racism, from slavery to redlining to riots to criminal justice. It suggests how we, individually and collectively, can build a better society that supports a bigger, fairer economic pie.
The reaction to Floyd's killing and the aftermath of the demonstrations are some of the most memorable and significant developments on the Minnesota business scene in a year shaped by the pandemic and economic calamity that resulted.
In November, the Star Tribune identified $125 million in Black-led commercial, residential and arts-related developments underway on W. Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis. That will mean more jobs, housing and enterprise.
We are seeing "Black Excellence," as espoused by North Side business leaders such as Marcus Owens, Jamil Ford, Houston White, Tara Watson, Tim Baylor and Gabrielle Greer. They are drivers of the Broadway-corridor revival through health, food, housing, retail and arts.
This is progress, but not enough.
"Not compared with the income gap that has not closed by more than 1% in more than 15 years," Tawanna Black, founder of the Center for Economic Inclusion, points out. And not, she added, compared to the loss of wealth over decades "from devaluing Black homes, Black business and Black lives."
Twin Cities employment data from 2011 through 2019 indicate that Black employment is growing much faster in key job categories, including technology, health care and construction. This also is imperative because minorities and immigrants are the growing component of the local labor force.
"The employment data is going in the right direction but the wage data is not," Black said. "Three things must happen. Every employer in the region must commit to wage parity by race today. We've been studying it since the Economic Policy Institute first reported about it. We need employer commitment just as they've made progress related to gender. At senior levels.
"And commit to doing the same thing in procurement. We need growth in Black-owned businesses. Invest by doing business or put cash in them. It's in the best interest of our economy and racial justice.
"Thirdly, every corporation has a lobbying arm. Back up proclamations with public policy that aligns with racial equity."
She points to Ecolab Inc., the St. Paul-based maker of cleaning chemicals, as a model for articulating goals and holding managers accountable.
In recent weeks, the CEOs of three dozen U.S. companies have pledged to hire 1 million Black workers in the next decade. The "OneTen" project is led by Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier and includes American Express, AT&T, IBM, American Express, Bank of America, Delta Air Lines and Target.
The companies will tap into a more diverse community of workers through a special recruiter that will identify job applicants through colleges, nonprofits and other outfits that cultivate Black talent. The jobs range from nurse practitioners to technical workers.
Black businesses, mostly small and thinly capitalized, have been absent from financial networks.
Ernst & Young, the accounting and consulting firm, will support 12 small Black- and Latino-owned businesses in the Twin Cities as part of a multicity business accelerator program. The Entrepreneurs Access Network is another initiative in the wake of civil unrest after Floyd's death.
Bankers, meanwhile, have committed to expanded relationships with nonprofit Community Development Financial Institutions, small-business advisers and financiers, such as Neighborhood Development Center and MEDA. They work with minority entrepreneurs to launch and expand on W. Broadway, University Avenue and E. Lake Street.
In San Diego this winter, Gegax is showing the video in schools and other gatherings.
"There's been a lack of full-throated support from the white community," he said. "The Black community needs more white allies. Not to just not be racist. But to be anti-racist. Our motivation with the film is to get allies. Systemic racism is one of the top issues facing our country.
"Were not doing this just to suck up to the Black Lives Matter movement. We're not talking defunding police. We're talking about reform. And reallocation. And not asking police to do what they are not trained to do."
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.