A Rising Tide

In 2022 Lance J. Randall moved to Portland to lead the Black Business Association of Oregon — a newly formed organization with its sights on attracting, retaining and supporting Black-owned businesses throughout the state.

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Lance J. Randall emerged from his third-floor inner office in Portland’s underutilized Lloyd Center mall wearing a fitted chocolate-brown, three-piece suit, a pocket watch and a confident smile. His meticulously groomed appearance and his reputation as a nationally award-winning business and Black community advocate is, after all, a tradition passed down from his Georgia family’s multigenerational legacy as groundbreaking civil-rights activists and entrepreneurs. 

“I am what you call an economic development practitioner,” Randall, the seasoned and unapologetically confident director of the new Portland-based Black Business Association of Oregon, tells Oregon Business. “The only other Black business association that operates statewide — there’s only two — is in Rhode Island. And we’re the other.”

The BBAO was created in 2022 through a partnership between the National Association of Minority Contractors and the Portland Business Alliance as an outgrowth of the Portland Business Alliance’s Black Economic Prosperity initiative, which it launched in 2020 following the death of George Floyd. The PBA has been criticized by Portland’s Black community for its years of lackadaisical support of Black-owned businesses and was pushed by five Black PBA board members to make a visible commitment. 

So far the organization has raised $1.7 million through a combination of sources that include the PBA and Meyer Memorial Trust — as well as state and federal funds. 

BBAO’s intentional focus on raising wealth within the Black community is a goal that Randall says he has strived for during his nearly 30 years of advocating for economic development, housing, tourism and other economic drivers. Following in his father’s footsteps, he received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Baltimore’s Morgan State University, a historically Black research college. Randall then returned to his familial roots in consolidated Macon-Bibb County, a red-clay hilly town of about 160,000 residents who live along the gentle and unspoiled currents of the 255-mile Ocmulgee River.

Randall was the only son of five children in a religious and politically active household within a segregated neighborhood of Black professionals. Randall’s father, attorney William C. “Billy” Randall, served in the Georgia House of Representatives and was the first Black politician from Bibb County at that influential level. For 24 years, he worked to modify state laws that were intended to uphold systemic racism, and he fought for changes in the judicial system that would lead to a fairer adjudication of Black people. Billy Randall was also appointed as Bibb County’s first Black civil-court judge and chief magistrate, a position he held for 20 years. 

Randall’s grandfather, William P. “Daddy Bill” Randall, was a civil-rights leader in Macon-Bibb County; the first Black person to serve on that county’s Board of Commissioners; and a longtime business owner who helped build military and public housing across the southeastern United States during World War II. He also owned a funeral home, a nursing home, a skating rink, a cable company and a hotel resort. And he was considered to be a close friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

In 1961 “Daddy Bill” Randall helped his then-17-year-old son Billy organize a 1961 Macon bus boycott, the first major resistance of segregation led by youth members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A year later, the elder Randall led a group of four Macon ministers to protest segregated public buses, which ignited the Macon Bus Boycott in February 1962.

When Lance Randall was recruited to be the project manager for Macon’s economic development commission, he was proud to continue his family’s legacy of blazing new paths, becoming the first Black person to hold that particular seat of influence. Randall was credited with recruiting more than 30 businesses to relocate or expand their operations into Macon-Bibb County. He later was promoted into a vice president position in the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, where he worked with city and county department heads, the mayor, and the county chairperson to develop business-friendly policies and strategies that stimulated economic growth within commercial and industrial areas. 

“My job was to keep businesses in Bibb County, Georgia, from leaving, closing or what have you,” Randall says. “If they had issues, my job was to solve problems for them. It was different because most of the presidents and CEOs of these companies were white, in the deep South. It took a little bit of time for them to believe that I could actually help them with their businesses. So I had to prove myself.” 

In 2001, based on Randall’s multiple successes, the city’s business chamber received an award by the Georgia Economic Developers Association for outstanding service, but Randall also had his sights on politics. 

So in 2004, he ran — and lost — as the first Black and Democratic nominee for chair of the Bibb County Commission. A few years later, in 2006, Randall campaigned to become Macon’s second Black mayor, but came in third of seven candidates. After those election losses, Randall was recruited by the city of Seattle to be its business relations manager for the Office of Economic Development. 

So in 2007, Randall drove from Georgia to the Pacific Northwest. In his new job, he led successful negotiations across multiple agencies that resulted in attracting the Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll marathon in 2009. The race, which directed up to 18,000 runners around various routes over the years, had a $22 million economic impact on the city. Randall also organized a coalition of 28 business associations and neighborhood chambers of commerce to focus on meeting the individualized needs of its business owners. He also recruited an international gaming school to the Seattle Center and was credited with talking a brand-identity manufacturer into staying in Seattle. 

Randall eventually joined a nonprofit called SouthEast Effective Development, which provides arts and culture programming, economic development, and low-income housing in the racially diverse Southeast Seattle area. Among other accomplishments, Randall was given credit for coordinating a renovation project that improved 18 businesses, storefronts owned by entrepreneurs of color; helping numerous business associations secure funding for neighborhood-based economic and business development activities; and recruiting eight new businesses, including the largest Planet Fitness franchise gym in the state of Washington.

Randall eventually became SEED’s interim executive director and assisted with the renovation of the Rainier Arts Center, a South Seattle venue for concerts, plays, music and dance performances, and arts and cultural events. The venue’s upgrades included a state-of-the-art sound system to prepare for a post-pandemic reopening. SEED’s current executive director, Michael Seiwerath, who overlapped Randall’s tenure by two months, also gives Randall credit for building 1,100 affordable apartments. 

“Lance was quite a leader, so he would also work cross-departmentally,” Seiwerath says. “Here I am, new on the job, and Lance is this huge ally for our work and knows everybody.”

After more than a dozen years in Seattle, Randall ran for mayor in 2021, championing for increased financial support for arts-based organizations and for minority-owned businesses. When he lost that race, Randall again started looking for another place to land, including considering moving back to Macon-Bibb County. 

‘The Invisible Knee’

In neighboring Portland, the PBA had begun working on a Black Economic Prosperity initiative to support and recruit Black-owned businesses and influence policies that would benefit Black-owned businesses around the state. 

“Our board and team committed to investing time, energy and support to add a private-sector complement to the social-justice movements that arose in the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” says Andrew Hoan, PBA’s president and CEO. “Economic empowerment for Black businesses will lead to a more resilient economy and equitable community.” 

John Washington, editor and publisher of Flossin Media and
executive director of the Soul District Business Association 

In response to cultural and economic unrest, PBA invited others to the table for a conversation on how to better support Black economic development. One attendee, John Washington, a longtime community activist and the publisher and editor of Flossin Media, has been a consistent critic of the PBA for having no visible or consistent legacy of Black inclusion. Washington is also the executive director of one of the longest-running business districts in the city, the Soul District Business Association. SDBA was established in 1977 as an engine for economic, social and political progress. 

In late April 2022, after a national search, PBA announced that Randall was hired to run the newly created BBAO.

“What felt important to the folks on the selection panel,” notes Nate McCoy, executive director of the National Association of Minority Contractors-Oregon, “is one, Lance’s expertise, and two, also being able to work within the Black community here in Oregon. But to be quite honest, what got him the job even more than his expertise was that he is a very relational guy and a great communicator.”

Washington, though, says he felt slighted by PBA’s decision-
making process, as an outreach of PBA’s “The Invisible Knee” call to action for Black economic equity. 

“It felt unethical for us to sit in a room together and share these strategic agendas, and then, the next thing I know, I’m reading in the newspaper that the organization had been created and had hired Lance Randall. I think it was the way it was all done, it’s just one of those trust issues,” Washington tells OB. “On the other hand, any organization or person who could assist us in this longstanding struggle to advance Black enterprise in this state is a welcomed ally.”

Another Black business-focused organization, the Black American Chamber of Commerce, which was formed just before the start of the COVID pandemic, is still in building mode. Led by Jesse Hyatt, a Portland-born entrepreneur, BACC offered COVID-related grants to Black businesses and passed out masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other pandemic-related giveaways. Its seven-person staff is focusing on building a new website, events calendar and jobs board, and is expanding its 200-member roster of active participants.

Lance Randall at his desk at the Black Business Association of Oregon’s office in Northeast Portland.

The money that BBAO raised also helped it leapfrog over the potential impact of the two existing Black-business organizations. PBA agreed to invest $300,000 in financial support over three years, which was matched by Meyer Memorial Trust. And Multnomah County and Prosper Portland each donated $25,000. 

“Working with our partners at NAMC and convening public and philanthropic partners to match the private initiative was mission critical for the Alliance,” Hoan says. So when a financial request came through the Salem office of state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), she was impressed with the $650,000 that had already been raised to support the BBAO. So she secured another $300,000 in state funding.

“Being able to bring them to the table with the ask, I think, was pretty powerful,” says Bynum, who owns four McDonald’s restaurants in the Portland area. “I’ve never had a direct ask from other Black business organizations.”

U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden also secured a total of $750,000 in federal funding for a collective investment of more than $1.7 million. Several other Portland-based, business-focused nonprofits also received $750,000 in federal money from Wyden and Merkley in 2022, including Washington’s Soul District Business Association.

“For far too long, Black-owned and operated businesses have faced barriers to an equitable economy,” Sen. Merkley says. “This work will be critical to helping build intergenerational wealth among Black Oregonians. When Black-owned or led businesses thrive, everyone thrives, and I cannot wait to see the incredible new opportunities and businesses that this funding will help create.”

“This good news translates into good-paying jobs and significant investment in the community,” adds Sen. Wyden. “As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, I’ll keep battling for similar investments in Black-owned small businesses throughout Oregon.” 

New Territory

Randall says he is interested in working with any and all organizations and Black-owned businesses to make sure all boats rise using the best practices of economic development. Those include retention and expansion of existing business; development and support of new entrepreneurs; workforce development to increase the number of available jobs; and recruitment of existing Black-owned, out-of-state businesses. He says he is interested in personally visiting Black-owned businesses to find out what their needs are, provide support with capacity building, and build data-collection systems so they can better compete for government contracts and help influence policies that have negatively impacted Black businesses in the past. 

And in November of last year, the BBAO hired John Taponga and the ECONorthwest team to develop the Black Economic Prosperity Dashboard. That project, which will launch in May as part of BBAO’s website, uses data from the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded Black Wealth Data Center to track Oregon’s Black population numbers, as well as Black educational achievement, Black health and Black-owned businesses. 

BBAO currently shares office space with NAMC-Oregon and is represented on its eight-member board by five PBA board members including BBAO’s board chair Alando Simpson, CEO of City of Roses Disposal & Recycling. McCoy serves on the boards of directors of both PBA and BBAO and acts as BBAO’s fiscal sponsor. And two Black women, Karis Stoudamire-Phillips, vice president of community initiatives for Moda Health, and Angela Nelson, vice president of equity, diversity, and inclusion for Travel Portland, also sit on the BBAO board.

Stephen Green

“What I’m hopeful, of all things, is let’s see how things are different six months, a year from now, five years from now,” says serial entrepreneur and PitchBlack founder Stephen Green, who has been vocally critical of PBA’s lack of visible commitment to the Black community. “That’s what’s still being played out. I think it’s super-positive stuff, just different than other stuff that’s happening.”

And while Randall is most excited to talk about the future of the organization, he does share a list of what it has achieved since its inception in early 2022: The organization has purchased a statewide license for its customer relationship management system, allowing BBAO to catalog more than 600 Black-owned businesses across the state; it launched a website with news, events and a directory of Black businesses; and it has partnered with DoorDash to provide $400,000 in grant money for eight weeks of cohort training to 20 restaurants, 10 of which were Black-owned. The DoorDash partnership will continue with a Foodie Passport program that launches in May and will provide customers with rewards for visiting participating restaurants. In January of this year, the organization hosted 40 Black students from the University of Oregon at a Portland Trailblazers-L.A. Lakers game and a reception encouraging them to seek internships and employment in Oregon.

“We’re now setting up something that has never been done in Portland by having these systems in place,” McCoy notes. “Now, how are we partnering and working together, and actually putting the egos aside and communicating in a way that no one is being left behind?”

Randall says his core mission is to have all boats rise on the waves of opportunities he plans to help create, in partnership with other business-related organizations that are run by or serve the Black community. He says his family taught him to humbly listen, lead and hold space for others; wear a suit and tie nearly every day; and use his resources and skills to help others. 

“I’m taking everything that I have learned to share with you all so you can be successful,” Randall says. “I am not going to leave you behind. It’s not my nature. I’m from the South. We don’t do that.”

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