Berkshire Bank recognizes the importance of financial growth opportunities for both individuals and businesses. As a community bank, we are driven by our sense of purpose to help raise the economic potential of our surrounding communities. During Black Business Month in August, we celebrate the more than 2 million Black-owned businesses in the United States, including many of our customers and community partners. In Berkshire County, MA, the operational hub of Berkshire Bank, the Berkshire Black Economic Council
(BBEC) is working with Black-owned businesses and future generations of Black entrepreneurs to help them reach their dreams while paying it forward.
A.J. Enchill is the founder and president of the Berkshire Black Economic Council. A native of Pittsfield, MA, he is the oldest of four brothers. As a child, he recalls learning about saving money from his family when he opened his first bank account with a Berkshire Bank quarter sleeve at the former Berkshire Bank at 43 East St. in Pittsfield. A.J. also learned what it takes to manage a successful family business from parents who own Elegant Stiches and are now celebrating 20+ years in business. As an adult, A.J. studies the data and understands not all startup businesses are successful yet feels fortunate about the opportunities he had growing up, knowing his parents showed him how to balance work life, raising a family, and juggling extracurricular activities like sports.
Cumulatively, these experiences drove A.J.’s passion to be an entrepreneur who now helps other Black entrepreneurs and Black-owned businesses. A.J has found his calling. His personal goal of giving back to underserved communities started years ago. He shared, “This position is a dream come true, of helping others, and doing important work that heals communities. It is remarkable to see it all come together.” Now, the BBEC accelerates initiatives to help the Black business community realize their dreams, experience arts, culture, and environmental justice.
Supporting Black Entrepreneurs
Being an entrepreneur can be both exciting and challenging. Small businesses need capital to operate, grow, and navigate challenging times. This was especially true during the peak of COVID. In response to the growing need, disparities, and impact that COVID was having on the Black business community in the Berkshires, in May of 2021, A.J. incorporated the Berkshire Black Economic Council. To identify needs and create a formal strategy, the BBEC conducted a business needs assessment to hear from the private sector, entrepreneurs, business, arts, and cultural organizations within Berkshire County. Using the survey results, BBEC identified strategic areas of focus including:
- Increasing Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Certifications: 84% percent of businesses in Berkshire County surveyed are not minority business enterprise (MBE) certified. A certification can open up new contracting opportunities for small businesses to work with larger companies as suppliers and provide access to certain municipal, state, and federal contracts. The BBEC is working towards increasing the number of Black-owned businesses with MBE certification to unlock these additional opportunities by helping businesses through the certification process.
- Arts & Culture: This is one of the largest sectors of the Berkshire economy, yet for many communities of color, cost and transportation can be major barriers to attending events. Black individuals also want hands on learning and engagement like sculpting in arts. To overcome this, BBEC is bringing people together to share a bus ride to allow bonding, and empowerment through networking at cultural events.
- Talent Pipeline: The BBEC supported Berkshire Educates’ recruitment from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by sponsoring a day trip to Ramblewild so that aspiring Black teachers, from the Berkshire Teaching Fellow Program, could enjoy Berkshire outdoor recreation and imagine the Berkshires as a place to work and live.
Speaking of the BBEC’s approach to its work, A.J. shared, “This holistic model of addressing issues to achieve outcomes is something that needs to be replicated for business growth, experiences, and empowering people.” Thanks to additional funding city, state, and federal sources along with philanthropic organizations, the BBEC is growing and working every day to address their strategic areas of focus. They were even recently awarded a grant to move from a volunteer organization to a fully staffed team with an enrichment navigator who will provide 1:1 technical assistance to Black businesses.
In looking towards the future, A.J. and the BBEC hope to develop an incubator in Downtown Pittsfield, MA to be a multipurpose center for entrepreneurs to drive business and patronage while simultaneously offering professional development, programming, and career readiness assistance. He views mentorship as a priority, so Black youth can see themselves as entrepreneurs.
Good for Some isn’t Good Enough
Berkshire Bank is playing a role in helping Black businesses and entrepreneurs reach their economic potential. For over 175 years, Berkshire has always had its communities’ backs and made equity and inclusion a focus of their efforts. In a recent Forbes report, data highlighted the persistent barriers people of color face trying to obtain more traditional loans and lines of credit from lenders. Mindful of these challenges, as part of its BEST Community Comeback, Berkshire set a goal to strengthen all of its communities with $1.5 billion in small business lending and $2.5 billion in lending to underserved neighborhoods. Berkshire also developed unique solutions including The Futures Fund, a line of credit aimed at helping borrowers from under-represented backgrounds and more recently, became the first U.S. community bank holding company to issue a sustainability bond. The proceeds from the $100 million issuance will be used to finance projects consistent with its Sustainable Financing Framework which includes targeted financing towards minority-owned businesses and suppliers. Ultimately Berkshire Bank along with partners like the Berkshire Black Economic Council are working to unleash everyone’s potential to build a better, more inclusive future for generations to come.