Networking plays a vital role in the success of any business is a phrase that is deeply rooted in the philosophy of any entrepreneur or small business owner. And nowhere is this more true than with the Urban Savannah Chamber of Commerce. The organization, founded in 2015 by local entrepreneur John Voner, focuses on empowering African-American, minority, and women owned businesses and professionals, ultimately stimulating economic development within the urban communities.
A quick look at whose involved with Urban Chamber reads like a whose-who list of some of Savannah’s major movers and shakers, people who have decided to come together to ensure that the next great innovator, entrepreneur or small business owner, will have a smoother road than the one that came before. We were able to sit down with current President, Russell Canady, whose own business journey opening Indulge Coffee became a key influence in his work with the chamber and the work of breaking down barriers and connecting people together.
The Creative Coast: Talk to us a little bit about what the Urban Chamber of Commerce is.
Russell Canady: Urban Savannah Chamber of Commerce is a Chamber of Commerce here in Savannah. Our mission is to empower African American, minority, women-owned businesses, and empower them through connections that’ll yield some type of business relationship. We’re trying to connect people with information in hopes that they grow their business.
CC: Cool. We would love to hear the perspective on y’all really deciding to stay in and root in Savannah. For so many folks, they’re like, “Well, this is hard. I’ll just leave,” right? What made y’all, the Chamber of Commerce decide that yes, this is what Savannah needs and we’re doing it?
RC: In the beginning, we started off as just a networking group. That was in 2015. I came on board in April of 2015 and right away it was evident that all of us had the same rhetoric. Me being a brand new business owner, I didn’t really know any avenues to access to capital or any just resources for my business out there. It’s here, I just didn’t know about it, and so that was the biggest thing that we were hearing. Like, oh wow, all of us had the same story. As more and more people came to the networking event, again, it’s the same story.
We said, “Well, we don’t have a minority chamber here that we can give specifically with that.” We have the Savannah Area Chamber, which is great. And, at that time, I believe the Hispanic Chamber had just formed also. And, so, here it is, we didn’t have anything for the African American and the other minority businesses out there. And, so, we were like, “I think we need to start one.” And, that’s how we really started as a chamber of commerce in January 2016.
CC: Talk about what it is you are offering for members.
RC: Of course, we still do our monthly networking, and it’s free and open to the public. For our members, we offer educational classes, we’ve had Businesses Who Brunch. We had a women’s empowerment luncheon early on in 2016. We’ve had many, many Lunch and Learns. Most of them are free to our members, but some of them are at a very heavily discounted price for our members. We also have an entrepreneurs institute where we teach would-be entrepreneurs and pair them up with seasoned entrepreneurs, and the whole premise of that program is to just go beyond business 101. Take that knowledge of having walked the pathway of entrepreneurship and helping those that are coming up, with that knowledge.
CC: That’s so awesome because there are people who are hungry for that here in Savannah, but they don’t have the roadmap of all the different resources. Can you talk about creating your own roadmap?
RC: I started my company in 2013. I was still in the military and I knew that a year later I would be transitioning out. I started preparing to leave five years earlier doing my business plan, and doing all my research on the coffee industry.
I transitioned out and to be honest, things didn’t fall the way that I thought they would fall. I needed a little bit more money than what I had to start my business. The funding that I was supposed to get fell through. I was stuck with having to go back into the workplace. But, I was so determined to start my own business that I started selling bags of coffee, coffee beans, at farmers’ markets. I actually started out in Richmond Hill Farmers’ Market and online. The response was actually really, really good. I didn’t expect for the response to be so great. And so, I was always thinking about how I could take it up another notch. I started looking for opportunities to bring a mobile component, a mobile coffee shop, anywhere I could do it.
I began seeking out festivals. I remember I was at Darien for their Harvest Day Festival, and then somebody called me about wanting to be a vendor down on River Street. And, when I was down there, my landlord’s best friend saw me, and asked if I had a physical location. And, I told him, “no.” And he said, “Well my friend is looking for a place, for a coffee shop, a coffee component in his mailbox place. And so I was like, “Cool. I’ll go see him.” I went to go see him, and probably a couple of months later, I opened up physically.
But ever since I opened up, it’s been a struggle, because, like I said, I wish I had known that I needed a little bit more money than what I had. And so, basically I took what I had and just made stuff happen with it. It’s a lot of sleepless nights, especially in the first year and a half was hard. Especially during the summers.
CC: But it really seems like you’ve taken the hard road that you had and essentially put the experience into the Urban Chamber so that it isn’t so hard for the next person.
RC: I’ll say this. I think the whole lure of being in business for yourself is you want to have that freedom. You want to have that freedom to make decisions, to come and go, and have a following, and all that comes with being an entrepreneur. But, at the same time, I think a lot of people that go into business, they don’t ever see that because of all the stuff that they have to go through and how hard that can be without a roadmap of resources.
And without a roadmap? People get discouraged.I don’t ever want someone to get discouraged about going into business, because it is very rewarding even though it can be a struggle. I struggled. It’s still rewarding. I still pop up out of bed like, “Yes! I’m going to open up the shop.” You have to take those struggles, to sit up and say, “Oh, wow. This is happening now, and I can appreciate everything else because of that.”
CC: On that note, why start a business in Savannah?
RC: Savannah’s a gem. First of all, I don’t want to sound all mystical and everything, but Savannah’s beauty just took a hold on me. The people here are great. From a logistical point of view, anywhere you go from this point in Savannah, go up to Atlanta, go to Charleston, you go to Jacksonville, you Miami, wherever. It’s so central to getting things that you want to get done. If you want to fly up to New York to buy fabric for a fabric store. Or, you find a grocer up there that’s better than any of the grocers here in Savannah. Just on a logistical point of view it’s very easy to access for that. Business is easy here. Plus, at the end of the day? It’s home.
To find out more on Urban Savannah Chamber of Commerce, visit: http://urbansavannah.cc