AFRICANGLOBE – Oil, natural gas and diamonds from Africa, flowers and emeralds from Colombia — the possibilities are endless for Trenton local John Harmon, who has come a long way from overseeing a residential mortgage unit for Bowery Savings Bank.
Now on the national scene as chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Harmon, 53, says he is ready to take what he’s learned at a local level and use his knowledge to create opportunities for Black businesses both nationally and abroad.
In Chicago for the national chamber’s annual conference on Black business this weekend, Harmon hoped to follow up with representatives from Colombia he met while on an exploratory trip there in May.
“The African-American chamber of commerce is a vehicle that is solution-focused,” said Harmon, who began his new role on March 7. “My main role is to help to set the economic agenda for Black business across America and for communities that are predominantly African-American.”
Though he has stepped up to the national level in his influence as an African-American businessman, Harmon continues as president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
A key part of his agenda is to make the state more competitive, he said, and a critical part of that is education.
“You have cities like Trenton, Newark, Camden, Paterson who have a large population of African-American individuals, and those school systems, in my opinion, are not performing at a level that’s going to enable our kids to effectively compete in the 21st century,” said Harmon, who founded the New Jersey chamber in 2007.
Recently, the state African-American chamber partnered with First Book to help the nonprofit organization with its mission to provide free books to low-income kids across the United States.
This past month the chamber donated 43,000 books to Burlington County College, but it is now working with First Book to distribute 500,000 books throughout the United States.
“We know the importance of reading and literacy, and that’s going to strengthen the ability of our work force because the better educated the work force, the better prepared they are to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Harmon said.
“The chamber is realizing the need — particularly in the African-American community and low-income communities — to do these types of activities,” he said.
Harmon is also working with Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction industry trade association, to create more diversity in construction jobs. “If you look around Trenton, you look on the highways, there’s construction going on throughout the state of New Jersey and there’s very limited participation of Blacks in construction, even in the communities in which they live — it’s a problem,” Harmon said.
The Associated Builders and Contractors is non-union, but in the state of New Jersey unions have preference on public contracts, Harmon said. “We’re saying if there’s tax dollars spent it should be open, fair competition — whoever can do the work in a quality manner at a price that is competitive should get the job, and in parts of New Jersey that’s not the case,” Harmon said.
But Harmon wants to do more than create opportunities for African-American businesses in New Jersey.
The National Black Chamber of Commerce has about 140 national chapters, Harmon said, but it also has a global mission that encompasses the countries where many Blacks were brought by slavers or migrated to on their own, including places like Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, France and Colombia.
This past May, Harmon led a trip to Colombia with the national chamber to look into potential business opportunities with Colombian companies and create a Colombian chamber.
“They have a number of opportunities there in the areas of mining, infrastructure, engineering, energy, health — these were all opportunities for not only U.S. businesses to export our products and services, but also to work in partnership with Colombians to help them take part in the economic opportunities that exist in their own land,” Harmon said.
While Harmon hopes to follow up with Colombian businesses at a conference in Chicago in July, he is also supporting a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th District) to expand relationships between the United States and Africa.
“(Africa is) probably number one in terms of resources in the world — oil, natural gas, raw materials, diamonds,” Harmon said. “There’s (also) a kinship there. We’re family — we’re just on different parts of the globe. We have a kindred spirit and we’re trying to take it from a more emotional to a more substantive relationship to leverage our respective abilities to improve the conditions and create opportunities on both sides.”
Harmon is still new to the role as chairman of the national chamber, but he hopes to keep expanding into international markets and create business opportunities for people not just in the United States.
“We’re trying to connect with our brothers and sisters and share with them how we’ve been able to grow and sustain ourselves individually and collectively so they can do the same thing in their countries.”
By: Beverly Schaefer