University City

Looking for the right number

Learning more about the 8,000 or so women- and minority-owned employers in Mecklenburg could lead to more balanced growth in the local economy.

Collecting data on women- and minority-owned businesses with paid employees is a goal of a new yearlong study by the Charlotte Chamber, UNC Charlotte and Pride magazine.

The first task will be to find those employers. Their numbers shrank between 2002 and 2007, even before the recession started.

That's a troublesome sign, especially when the total number of employers in Mecklenburg grew during the same five-year period.

"The bigger goal is to help these segments of the economy," said Tony Crumbley, vice president of research at the Charlotte Chamber. "We need all segments of the economy growing."

The number of employers in Mecklenburg grew from about 24,700 in 2002 to about 28,300 in 2007.

About 97 percent of those operations were small businesses, Crumbley said. Only 713 of those firms employ 100 people or more.

Sectors that lost jobs recently were businesses owned by women and blacks. There were 3,020 women-owned firms with paid employees in Mecklenburg in 2007, down from 3,120 in 2002. That same year, there were 701 black employers, down from 734 in 2002.

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses with paid employees was a bright spot: Those employers grew from 338 in 2002 to 379 in 2007, according to Census data.

Too little data is available about those firms counted in Census surveys, Crumbley said.

In fact, the Chamber can account for very few of them.

"The most extensive list I've been able to come up with has about 665," Crumbley said.

Crumbley hopes the study will identify and collect data on 2,000 to 3,000 minority- and women-owned employers in Mecklenburg and 15 surrounding counties.

The first phase of the research will take about three months and will focus on developing an "asset inventory."

In the study's second phase, UNC Charlotte assistant professor Qingfang Wang plans focus groups and surveys in a 16-county area to find out what obstacles to growth these employers might face.

The information she gathers could be helpful in many ways.

When the Chamber learns about services that are lacking in a particular community, for example, it could alert business owners who offer those services.

The business owners could then decide whether the opportunity is worthwhile.

Helping small businesses grow and hire more workers could create more wealth for the Charlotte region, Crumbley said.

"Big businesses employ a lot of people, but there are more small businesses," he said.

"We can't do without either. You've got to have both."