Finding support at Native business expo

By Caroline Fossi
North Charleston, South Carolina - The Post and Courier

Among friends and family, Vanessa Russell is known for her baking skills. Macadamia nut brownies and cream cheese pound cake, as well as a traditional bread pudding from her American Indian heritage, are just some of her specialties.

Teresa Gore, president of S.C. American
Indian Chamber of Commerce

Photo by Mic Smith

To capitalize on her culinary talents, the Ladson resident launched Cheraw Bakery and Designs out of her home. Now, she's hoping to expand the venture and eventually open a store.

Wednesday, she took a first step in that direction, displaying some of her homemade goods at a booth during the inaugural Native American Business Expo in North Charleston.

"I'm here to learn," she said.

Russell was among about 20 American Indian business owners who attended the event, the first of its kind in South Carolina. Attendees ranged from craft makers to uniform suppliers to industrial firms.

One of the expo's main goals was to help small businesses such as Cheraw Bakery learn about resources that can help them grow, said organizer Teresa Gore, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of South Carolina, which is based in Ladson.

In many cases, American Indian entrepreneurs "don't know how to get out there and promote their businesses," said Gore, a Santee Indian.

Gore knows a little something about entrepreneurship, as founder and owner of GT Industrial LLC, a Ladson- based industrial supply and cutting tool company.

Wednesday's event at the Sheraton Hotel also served as a networking opportunity, allowing small-business owners to hobnob with representatives from corporations, such as defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. and tire maker Michelin North America, who often seek out minority-owned businesses for contract work. Also on hand were government agencies and other organizations aimed at small-business assistance and American Indian economic development.

Such networking events are especially important for American Indian entrepreneurs because many live in rural communities, said Dr.Will Moreau Goins, chief executive of the "state recognized" Cherokee tribe in South Carolina-ECSIUT, who helped organize the expo.

"We, as native people and as business people, have to reintroduce ourselves to South Carolina. This is a good starting place," he said.

Resources

Resources for Native American Indian business owners or aspiring entrepreneurs are available through the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of South Carolina in Ladson. For more information, visit <http://aiccsc.org/>AICCSC.org or call 875-2482.

Goins' organization, in cooperation with the chamber, is compiling a directory of American Indian-owned businesses in the state. It's expected to be published in November, he said. There are at least 130 such businesses in South Carolina, according to the chamber's research. In the Charleston area, they include Gore's business, GT Industrial, Cornerstone Engineering and Surveying, Matthew Creel Construction and Wadboo Creek Construction.

The business expo didn't attract only start-up businesses. Established firms such as Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Southern Fasteners and Supply Inc. also attended.

In the past, American Indian entrepreneurs have been hesitant to get involved with groups aimed at minority business development because they felt they were looked at as "tribal or reservation people," said Southern Fasteners President RJ Harris, a Lumbee Indian who founded the company 25 years ago.

"We haven't always stepped out and taken advantage of the opportunities afforded us," he said.

The chamber event served as a first step for many businesses to make key business and government contacts, he said. The group hopes to hold business expos twice a year around the state, as well as organizing quarterly networking luncheons. The next expo is planned for May 15-16 in either Charleston or Hilton Head Island.

Roughly 27,000 American Indian and Alaska natives live in South Carolina, according to the 2005 U.S. Census. The state is also home to seven state-recognized American Indian tribes and one state- and federally recognized tribe, the Catawbas in the Upstate.

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