From Student to Community Partner

  • Kenneth L. Harris
  • President/CEO
  • National Business League
  • Washington, DC
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.

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.

As the lead executive for an organization that champions the commerce-driven and economic prosperity of the Black community, Ken Harris signs his correspondence "Entrepreneurially Yours."

The Detroit native is charged with cultivating an entrepreneurial movement that aims to bring wholesale institutional and systems change for all people of African descent and their communities in the U.S., the Pan-African diaspora, and around the globe.

The responsibilities that come with his position include a heavy blend of history, legacy, and vision. Harris is aware of the expectations. But, he has been meeting challenges his entire life—as an athlete, businessman, elected official, and scholar.

"Success always leaves footprints."

Booker T. Washington

Trailblazer

Growing up on the west side of Detroit, in the Russell Woods area, Harris excelled in sports. He was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Clark Atlanta University (CAU), an Historically Black College/University, where he also found time to serve as student government president and president of Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology at CAU. He completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's degree in counseling psychology and returned to Michigan.

Harris went to work for the City of Southfield, serving as the first African American chief of staff in the Mayor's office. After leaving that position, he founded the International Detroit Black Expo, an economic empowerment agent for African American businesses in Michigan that has continued to grow to more than 1,000 Black exhibitor business members across the country and internationally, and more than 300,000 consumers a year.

He obtained an educational specialist degree in educational leadership and policy studies from Wayne State University while working at the Michigan Minority Business Development Council (MMBDC) as its executive vice president of business development and strategic initiatives. It was during that time that Harris was elected to the Detroit Charter Commission in a city-wide election.

He wanted to participate in a process that impacts the way Detroit city government interacts with entrepreneurs, the private sector, nonprofits, and neighborhood organizations. When asked what he learned from the experience, he said, "Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy."

What he hadn't yet learned how to do was slow down. Shortly after his term began, and while still working at the MMBDC, Harris decided he wanted a Ph.D.

Not an Ordinary Doctoral Degree

Ken L. Harris is the president and CEO of the National Business League, the nation's oldest voice for Black businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

Ken L. Harris is the president and CEO of the National Business League, the nation's oldest voice for Black businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

It was important to Harris to intertwine the professional knowledge that he built early in his career when he enrolled in MSU's highly regarded African American and African Studies program to pursue his doctorate. He wanted to include business, entrepreneurship, and economic perspectives to add dimension to his doctoral studies.

"Dr. Rita Kiki Edozie was the program director at that time, and she was instrumental in helping me put together an interdisciplinary curriculum experience that was a dual degree with African studies, business, and entrepreneurship. I wasn't a traditional student, but she had this amazing ability to link students, faculty, staff, and community in a field of study that has a tremendous impact in the Black community," said Harris.

"Dr. Edozie helped me integrate economics into my program studies. She connected me to Dr. Forrest S. (Sam) Carter at the Broad College of Business, and he ended up serving as my advisor and chairing my dissertation committee.

"When Dr. Carter agreed to participate, I applied and was accepted into the Broad College of Business. He had to set up a curriculum that met MSU doctoral guidelines, since I was the first to blend the two disciplines. He was also excited about setting up a pipeline for future students who wanted something similar to what I wanted. I'm grateful because he really accepted the challenge of working with me, along with looking forward to help future students.

"Everything started to align, but I had to break serious barriers. What did a Ph.D. in African and African American Studies look like with a business and economic background?

"I had people on my committee that had blazed their own trail in multiple disciplines, and I've been grateful for their support. In addition to Rita Kiki Edozie and Sam Carter, I had Lisa Cook (MSU professor of economics and international relations), Ernest Betts (MSU assistant dean for multicultural studies), and Juliet Walker (professor, Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin). I benefited from their backgrounds and the things they had done."

When Harris talks about his MSU education, he emphasizes the reasons that he selected "this program" with "this university."

"Partnerships and multi-disciplinary research are essential to community work. The land-grant history, and the university's commitment to diversity, economic inclusion, and equity, is essential to the future. I was looking for a way to put my research experience and doctoral studies to good use, and do more to bridge the gap between entrepreneurship and the community," said Harris. "Not only is MSU serious about community, as noted in their leading study abroad initiatives, but the university puts its money where its mouth is by investing in urban areas, such as their Detroit Center in the heart of the city."

Getting Down to Business

The National Negro Business League was founded in 1900 because Booker T. Washington believed that economic power contributed to progress for Blacks and their communities. He emphasized education, entrepreneurship, and networking, which are components that still resonate today with Harris.

The NNBL was reincorporated in 1966 and renamed the National Business League (NBL). In 2017, the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce merged with the NBL and announced Harris as the League's 12th president.

The NBL's chief focus is the economic empowerment of Black communities. With the merger, NBL has access to 2.9 million Black-owned businesses across the U.S. through 365 local leagues.

"It provides the Black economic agenda with a national platform, along with 100-plus years of history and global foundation," said Harris.

"I See Opportunity"

Detroit's history, along with national and international economic waves of change, have brought a range of entrepreneurial opportunities. People of African descent have often felt these impacts in the extreme.

Growing up, Harris saw lots of firsts that came out of Detroit. "I saw Black success and Black excellence, and it gave me a different lens and a different confidence. There was a Black middle class that thrived because the automotive industry and suppliers hired local. Entire neighborhoods were built with Black-owned businesses and customers. We owned every single aspect of products, goods, and services necessary for the community. In a way, they had to because it was pre-desegregation," he said.

Today, Harris is in charge of an organization that believes empowering an intergenerational economic shift towards wealth building will revolutionize the marketplace. He and other members of the NBL are aware of the growing technology-dependent way of doing things, especially as it pertains to doing business.

"So much is changing, and I want to make sure our members have the resources they need to be competitive or innovative. The internet has opened so many new ways of doing business, from reaching customers to locating products and services. And then there's that whole thing about what they say about your business. With social media, businesses have experienced wild successes and monumental failures. So it's reality that we have to figure out how to operate those tools," Harris explained.

"I always say the revolution will not be televised, it will be digitized," he says, smiling. "That's because we have to do things differently, and participate in a different way than in the past."

One of the first things Harris did as the NBL president was lower the dues to encourage people to join. He wanted to increase membership and introduce members to all of the opportunities available to them.

Picking up the leadership mantle has caused Harris to work and collaborate with a far-reaching network of supporters. The core tenets of the League are named in Seven Principles to Prosperity, including holistic entrepreneurship, access to commerce opportunities, membership and certification development, community reinvestment and inclusion, development of political policy and advocacy, resource deployment and technical assistance, and talent placement and acquisition.

It means that they support business owners and innovators in multiple ways with an ambitious calendar of programs, events, and networking opportunities.

"I believe we still have not reached the apex of economic and entrepreneurial development that is essential to our communities revitalizing themselves and building sustainability," Harris said.

According to the National Business League

  • There are 2.9 million African American businesses in the U.S.
  • 975,000 employees work in Black or African American-owned businesses.
  • Total receipts of black business approach $150 billion per year.
  • African Americans have the largest percentage of firms owned by women at 38 percent and their growth rate is 300 percent higher than the national rate.

Working with Michigan State University

It was natural for Harris to bring Michigan State University into his network.

"I'm looking to bring together corporate leaders with Black entrepreneurs and communities so we can maximize our strengths and build relationships that provide mutual understanding and mutual benefits. Who can best help me with that? MSU is a leader for marginalized, disadvantaged communities where minorities reside. So naturally, I picked up the phone and contacted Dr. Carter, someone who has so much experience with the corporate and business world, and can bring that academic perspective to what needs to be done. I'd already seen what he could do when he mentored me for my Ph.D.," said Harris.

Sam Carter sits on the National Business League's Center of Economic Inclusion and National Hub Advisory Committee.

"I'm constantly researching how to better America and our economic situation—how to better prepare a diverse, inclusive, and equitable economy," said Harris. "Dr. Carter has extensive experience interacting with everything from Fortune 500 companies to small minority-owned businesses. So we work together to address our Seven Principles to Prosperity. That includes access to private and public sectors by educating members and offering resources and information that increase Black business owners' ability to compete.

"Sam has also been a strong ally to provide NBL members with the tools, best practices, resources, and programs to enhance their growth experiences. We do that through technical assistance and training," said Harris.

The Doors Are Always Open

"We are at an integral point right now, where one of the major topics of discussion is economic inclusion and equity. In a city like Detroit—or Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, or Cape Town, South Africa—it allows the National Business League to cast a national platform. By 2045 the U.S. will be majority Black/Brown. America will become a beacon for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"MSU can help bring economic inclusion and equity, because diversity does not always equal inclusion or equity. They have a history of working with all cultures, all races, all genders, both domestic and abroad. The doors are always open. I'm proud of my education and I'm grateful for those who helped with that education. It's a natural to reach out to MSU to collaborate and partner with me now as I work toward my next goal. And that next goal is to show that there are tremendous rewards to Black entrepreneurship and Black economic empowerment," Harris said.

"I am in the community, doing the work. At the same time, I'm a scholar. We engage in the real work that needs to happen, and I was taught that we apply our research so that it's not sitting on a desk collecting dust. That is the type of engagement that inspires. I think—I hope—I'm an example of what MSU wanted to produce," said Harris.

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

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