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Building Business Trust Across a Cultural Gap

Ventures: African American, Korean entrepreneurs move toward forging community ties, establishing economic partnerships.


Organizers of this weekend's Black Business Expo & Trade Show teamed up with the International Korea Expo to offer joint admission, then landed a 50% discount on event T-shirts by using a Korean manufacturer in Los Angeles.

Ife Eugene-Onwughalu completed a free entrepreneurial training program for African Americans at a local Korean American university and now plans a buying trip to South Korea for her African dressmaking business.

And a group of 40 African American and Korean American business and civic leaders has held a series of meetings to forge community ties under the umbrella group CivilSociety. So far, Korean business leaders are helping a black-owned drinking water company arrange sales to Korean-owned stores.

The sixth anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots came and went Wednesday with little fanfare for these community leaders and business owners. Long after the spotlight faded from efforts at rapprochement, they have moved ahead quietly in their work.

The frenzy of handshaking and vows of peacemaking that blossomed after the riots died down long ago. Much of it, community leaders now say, was "a lot of talk and awfully shallow." But some relationships forged in the early days took root. Now they are producing a crop of small but concrete joint ventures, moving beyond the rhetoric of cross-cultural understanding to economic partnership.

"We've really gone far beyond exchanging food and having dances to where we've worked very hard to have business relations," said Dr. Clyde W. Oden Jr., CEO of WATTSHealth Systems, owner of the Black Business Expo.

Black-owned WATTSHealth Systems has marketed managed care to small Korean businesses for the last decade, losing 3,000 clients to the riots. So its staff of Korean American "linguistic and cultural ambassadors" were already on board and poised to reach out when it became evident the two expos would be neighbors at the Convention Center, Oden said.

The recent ventures mark a new maturity in relations between the African American and Korean communities.

"A lot of attention was put on it right away, and then it began fading, fading, fading," said Congress of Racial Equality Executive Director Richard Elkins, who founded CivilSociety in 1996. "Now people can reflect on things. There's no hype out there."

Said Scott Suh, vice president of CivilSociety and a board member of American Management Tech University, which just concluded its first entrepreneurial program for black business owners: "In order for us to resolve conflicts, we have to start with business people. . . . If we have a common ground, which is developing businesses together, people will try to understand each other."

The 40 business and civic leaders who make up CivilSociety have met four times and are drafting a report recommending joint ventures. They have also purchased billboard space to advertise their partnership. Elkins said the group raised $50,000 from corporate donors and chose members who represent a cross-section of the black and Korean communities--from law enforcement officials to swap meet owners.

The steps are small, but leaders of both communities say they represent a new approach to improved relations--one that is economically essential in the city's shifting demographic landscape. Neither African Americans nor Koreans can afford to do business within the confines of their ethnic group alone, community leaders said.

"African American consumers are very supportive of most other ethnic groups, and we need other ethnic groups to support African American businesses at a much greater percentage," said Skip Cooper, executive director of the Black Business Assn., which recruited students for the Korean-run course for black entrepreneurs.

"Hopefully by better understanding the African American community, [Koreans] can feel a greater comfort level in supporting African American businesses."

The joint efforts of the two business expos began as coincidence. The Black Business Expo, in its 10th year, was moving forward with an expanded program at the Los Angeles Convention Center when organizers learned the first International Korea Expo was scheduled the same weekend. They arranged a meeting in January.

"We want the Koreans to take a look at 500 of L.A.'s best black-owned businesses and vice versa," said Harold Hambrick, the Black Business Expo's executive director and vice president of public affairs for WATTSHealth Systems. "The dream is that as a result . . . a delegation of African American businesses will in the near future visit Seoul, Korea, and get a firsthand look at business in Korea. We extend the same invitation to businesses from Korea."

The black expo runs Friday through Sunday. The Korean expo runs Saturday and Sunday only. A hand stamp for one event gives free admission to the other.

Black business owners have been invited to arrange meetings early next week with Korean foreign suppliers who will exhibit at the expo, said Korea Expo spokeswoman Joanne Cho.

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