As Colombia wakes up to the need for including Black communities in its growth story, Atlanta will send the first official delegation meant to shine a spotlight on their untapped potential.
From Aug. 13-20, a trade mission developed by the Atlanta Black Chambers and packed with stakeholder firms from the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, or RICE, will take 20 Black-owned businesses from here to Cali, Colombia, in search of new partners and customers.
Cali, located near the Pacific coast, is widely known within Colombia as a center for the African diaspora, a group that makes up about a quarter of the country’s population but has been historically marginalized.
Linking a strong Black business hub like Atlanta with “the capital of Black people in Colombia” may seem obvious, but the ambassador said it has never been done — at least not with backing from ProColombia, the country’s trade promotion agency, and the country’s Ministry of Commerce and Tourism. Other partners include the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs and Invest Atlanta.
“This is history in the making,” Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s first Black ambassador to the United States, said during a press conference at RICE Tuesday. “This is the first official trade mission where the emphasis is on Afro-descendant business leaders and entrepreneurs.”
Mr. Murillo, a longtime environmental activist who has broken barriers before as Colombia’s first Black environment minister, was appointed to the post in September by Colombian President Gustavo Petro.
Elected last June, the left-leaning president has made it a point to install Afro-Colombians into positions of leadership, kick-starting discussions on race in society.
Mr. Petro’s vice president, Francia Marquez, is the first Black woman to serve in the country’s second highest political office. (Mr. Murillo also ran for VP on the ticket of Sergio Fajardo, throwing his support behind Mr. Petro after Mr. Fajardo was knocked out in the first round.) The country’s education minister, Aurora Vergara Figueroa, is also of Afro-Colombian descent.
While slavery ended in 1851 in Colombia, the country’s Black population “went into invisibility” after that, the ambassador told stakeholders at RICE, which is devoted to building Black business to address Atlanta’s racial wealth gap.
“We weren’t recognized as a particular racial group, with particular rights, especially cultural rights and rights to the land, until 1991, very recently.” A law solidifying this status was signed in 1993, making the Afro-Colombian movement “very young,” Mr. Murillo said.
That contrasts with Atlanta, known for its pivotal role in the civil rights movement and now newly focused on equity for Black communities in the wake of the George Floyd murder and nationwide protests in 2020, which Mr. Murillo said reverberated all the way to Colombia.
“Atlanta shows that you can — obviously with all the difficulty that this implies — work on a model of inclusion within the framework of the city. Not only in the political aspect of it, but also in terms of business and economy,” Mr. Murillo said in an interview with Global Atlanta after visiting the King Center.
With 200 million African-descended people spread across the region, Latin America now moving down this path, Mr. Murillo said, at the same time the Black-owned businesses in Atlanta and beyond are seeking to link up with the broader diaspora globally.
Ricardo Berris, a tech entrepreneur who helped spark the trip through the Atlanta Black Chambers’ Global Opportunities Committee, said taking Black-owned businesses from Atlanta to the world “should not have been a historic situation.”
“This is something that we should always be doing,” said Mr. Berris, who has done business in Colombia through his technology consultancy, MI Group USA. “This should be a way of life for us.”
But “people who look like us” are often not included in trade missions, said Paul Wilson, Jr., vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship at RICE.
Mr. Wilson had just returned from a trip interacting with government agencies and entrepreneurial hubs in Cartagena, Colombia, and Uganda when Mr. Berris and the Black Chambers approached RICE about partnering on the trip.
“It just became more apparent that we have to expose our entrepreneurs to global opportunities,” Mr. Wilson said at the press conference. The organizations anticipate partnering on another mission, perhaps next time to Africa.
For Kris Hale, CEO of Dope Pieces Puzzle Company, the trip will provide invaluable cultural immersion and meetings with artists of color whose work may feature in her 500-piece puzzles that are “dope enough to frame” and meant to be hung on a wall after completion.
“I’m really excited about going to visit museums and the street art scene and cultivating relationships with artists,” Ms. Hale said, adding that Dope Pieces carries its artists’ cultures wherever it sells their puzzles. “As we grow and get more puzzles done, that goes across the world.”
Others RICE stakeholder companies, like Jennifer Barbosa, founder and CEO of International Supply Partners, are headed to Colombia to expand their sourcing options. During the pandemic, Ms. Barbosa established her company as a key supplier of personal protective equipment to government entities and historically Black colleges.
“I want to be able to be more competitive in the global market and improve my accessibility to essential materials, not only in the medical (field), but industrial and construction supplies,” she said, “being able to source and import essential items from the countries where they do it best. Not just where it’s cheapest — but bringing in the best quality.” She’s already found a few partners in Colombia.
Channing Baker, CEO of Evolve Contractors, is also looking for raw materials for the metal-bending shop his facilities management company operates. He also hopes to facilitate tech transfers and sharing of best practices among building owners.
Beyond that, Mr. Baker sees the trip as a start toward fulfilling his destiny. As a high schooler, Mr. Baker interacted with his father’s international customers, then got more exposure to global business at Morehouse College and Georgia Tech. That his time as a RICE stakeholder coincided with this international offering was a welcome coincidence for someone who’d always envisioned a global future.
“I couldn’t be any more excited to go home, because I always tell my friends that while I love America, my home is over there. Wherever over there is.”
Shakiri Murrain, director of innovation solutions at RICE, similarly sees a deeper mission to the trip. Born to a Ghanaian father and Panamanian-American mother, Mr. Murrain has long seen the need to connect Black business leaders across borders and cultures, particularly in the Afro-Latino community.
“I think the trips like these have multiple bottom lines,” Mr. Murrain said. “One is how much money are we able to make, how many contacts we’re able to make. But in addition to that, the question is: How are we able to move this from just government and economic into a grassroots movement that encompasses all of the diaspora?”
In addition to meetings with potential business partners, delegates will take part in a program designed by curriculum developer Dawn Sizemore of PracEd Solutions to maximize the trip’s learning potential.
Mr. Murillo, the ambassador and former governor of the Pacific state of Chocó, pledged the Colombian government’s support in making this trip and subsequent engagements a success. He said he would also travel to Cali to meet the group, who has been preceded by an outpouring of media coverage
“Cali is Atlanta. Atlanta is Cali. You will see that by your own eyes.”
Trip participants include:
- Ricardo Berris, Mi Group USA
- Dawn Sizemore, PracEd Solutions
- Channing Baker, Evolve Contractors
- Jonathan Exume, Technologists of Color
- Charla Mitchell, Charla Ruschelle
- Shellie Stark, InHer Peace Beauty
- Kris Hale, Dope Pieces
- James Few, Chosen Few Media
- Kyra Solomon, Solomon and Solomon Construction
- Yaminah Childress, YANY Beauty
- Natalie Jerome, Neighborhood Jewel Properties
- Jadaun Sweet, The Visual Lyricist
- Melba Clayton, Ez4u2 Shop
- L’Angela Lee, Honeysuckle Moon
- Lindsay Barnette, Kultured Misfits
- Akita Patterson, Experiential Marketing Development Network
- Natasha Simmons, Yacht Club Access
- Jennifer Barbosa, International Supply Partners
- Lauren Levins, L Gabrielle Enterprises
- Melvin Coleman, Essential Wealth Management
Interested in business in Colombia? Join Global Atlanta’s roundtable and reception on Colombia’s Atlantic Advantage on Tuesday, Aug. 16.
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.