From Mentor to University Partner

  • Forrest S. "Sam" Carter
  • Associate Professor, Department of Marketing
  • Faculty Director, Burgess Institute of Entrepreneurship
  • Broad College of Business
Left to Right: Shenai Jackson, Wayne State University; Forrest 'Sam' Carter, Michigan State University; James D. Smith, Grand Valley State University; and Ken L. Harris, National Business League.

On a sunny Saturday in early June, four people met in a TechTown Detroit conference room to address the needs of Black and minority-owned business owners, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The meeting was the result of collaborative efforts by Ken L. Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League (NBL), and Forrest "Sam" Carter, associate professor in the Broad College of Business. They were there to present an action plan to expand NBL local leagues for collegiate and early career entrepreneurs.

"If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else."

Booker T. Washington

Joining them was Shenai Jackson, representing the Wayne State University Office of Economic Development, and Dr. James D. Smith, a school consultant for the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Charter Schools Office who is responsible for connecting GVSU with community partners in the Detroit region.

Each of the attendees had connections to Michigan State University. Harris, Jackson, and Smith are alumni. Carter joined MSU in 1978 and has been a faculty member for 41 years.

During his career, Carter has focused on marketing research, macro-marketing, and marketing's role in economic development, especially as it relates to women and minorities. Carter's engaged research emphasizes corporate and community environments that are conducive to innovation and entrepreneurial startups.

He has developed professional roots in the Detroit community as the owner of a market research firm in the city, as co-researcher of a five-year initiative at MSU to provide an integrative development tool for at-risk communities, and for a three-year initiative to improve the entrepreneurial skills of small healthcare providers within the Detroit Empowerment Zone.

Having built a vast network of associates in the private sector as well as the academic arena, Carter is well-positioned to connect others together. He has also taught scores of students about marketing and entrepreneurship, including Harris and Jackson.

In 2013 he created the HEROES Project: Helping Entrepreneurs Revitalize Our Economy and Society. The primary goal was to strengthen the ability of Black and African American entrepreneurs in urban communities so that they could thrive and grow. He collaborated with Harris, who at the time was the president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce (MBCC). One of the outcomes was the MSU Collegiate Chapter of the MBCC, the first in the U.S. Shenai Jackson was one of three founding students who worked with both Carter and Harris, subsequently serving as the organization's president.

At the time, Carter said, "Entrepreneurs can infuse new ideas and energy into their ventures by working with young people, and students learn that it is possible for them to be successful. And that may be a lesson that isn't necessarily learned anywhere but in a collaborative university-community exchange of knowledge."

Forrest 'Sam' Carter

It is now six years later, and they are working together again. This time, Carter, Harris, and their community partners want to develop networks, mentoring opportunities, and student startup efforts for the National Business League, aligning with its acquisition and redesign by the MBCC in 2017. There is an even greater need to refresh the goals that MBCC supported for their members, such as advocacy, access to capital, tools, resources, programs, technical assistance and training, and best practices.

"One of the questions I ask in my research is whether or not the economy is supporting minorities, and what more can be done to encourage Black entrepreneurs and business owners," said Carter. "We need to cultivate the emerging generation of professionals and encourage them not only to focus on their education, but also to become more aware of a myriad of entrepreneurial opportunities."

It is commonly acknowledged that any business owner can encounter difficulties obtaining financial capital or gaining market access. According to Carter, the financial challenges can be even greater when the business is minority-owned, or one that is operating in an urban or distressed region. To address those issues, NBL members gain access to an organization with 15,000 current members across the 50 states; the goal is to provide comprehensive programmatic activities that provide access to resources, encourage collaborations, and offer networking opportunities.

In light of that information, why reach out to a younger population?

"Technology has opened another frontier for business startups and innovators," said Harris. "We have young people who have a great idea, start it up, and are running a business before they are out of high school or college."

Shenai Jackson oversees an investment initiative named the 10,000 Small Businesses Program offered by Goldman Sachs to help entrepreneurs create jobs and economic opportunity. Its aim is to provide greater access to education, capital, and business support services. The company has implemented the program across the country, and Jackson is responsible for the Detroit regional operation via Wayne State University.

In addition to his GVSU consulting work, Smith serves on the board of directors of the 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit, and is an advisor to the Detroit Board Leadership Program, a Detroit Chamber of Commerce initiative. He says his passion for student mentoring is what drives him, and he helps Detroit high school students develop and execute strategies for sustainable personal and professional success before, during, and after college.

All four are in agreement that young people play a vital role in the future of Black entrepreneurs and innovators. Community economic development, talent acquisition and training, and corporate involvement and support will be at the forefront of the issues they carry forward for their communities.

No matter how profitable a business has been in the past, and regardless of how exciting and unique it is to current consumers, the four attendees in that Saturday meeting know that a landscape can change.

"We want to provide the knowledge, tools, and practical applications that are needed to operate in a competitive and global market," Harris said, referring to members at the National Business League.

But the landscape can also change in positive ways, as Carter is experiencing after so long in a teaching and mentoring position. His former students are launching their careers, and Carter continues to be available as a sounding board and information broker. He also finds himself now collaborating with those former students as community partners, such as Harris and Jackson.

"If you do it right, it's what is supposed to happen. This new project that we are working on keeps us going in that same upward momentum," said Carter.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Courtney Pasek

Like this Magazine? Join our mailing list