What started with a regular Zoom call ended with Charlotta Carter drafting her resignation letter.
Having served for less than a year as volunteer president-elect of the San Francisco chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Carter’s decision to renounce her title and an almost decade-long membership with the organization came after alleged remarks made by the incoming chair of the board for National rejecting support for Black women-owned businesses as part of an advocacy effort to support those businesses hurt during the pandemic.
“It was real clear that this wasn’t an org that valued me as a business owner that valued me as a Black person business owner,” Carter told The Plug.
One of the very first associations established in the US to support women-owned businesses, NAWBO launched in 1975 with the mission to advance female entrepreneurship, career opportunities, and self-sufficiency. In 1972, women owned nearly 4 percent of all American businesses, climbing to over 30 percent, or $4 trillion dollars in sales, well into the early 1990s.
Today, NAWBO says it has served over 11 million businesses in chapters across the country.
This is the first time critique about its diversity policies has been brought to light in a public manner.
Carter, who is the CEO of technology staffing and consulting firm GRTI, met with the NAWBO national team in late April to work on a piece of small business legislation advocacy that Carter was supporting in California and seeking guidance from NAWBO for a policy that would provide ongoing support for small business owners, specifically women-owned businesses negatively affected by the pandemic.
In the bill, Carter and her team highlight the unique challenges Black-owned businesses were facing as evidenced by data that showed at least 41 percent of these businesses did not survive shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 virus, their lacking relationships with banks or creditors having put them at a unique disadvantage.
“I was told [by the incoming president] that NAWBO could not support this and that members of NAWBO were “tired” of the focus on African American women businesses,” Carter told The Plug.
Requests to NAWBO on the remarks made by the incoming 2021 to 2022 California president were declined; they would not name the new president.
The following month, Carter emailed her letter of resignation to NAWBO’s national leadership team.
“Over the last several weeks I have encountered attitudes toward diversity, especially towards African American women business owners that I found disturbing,” Carter wrote to NAWBO’s national board of directors in an email sent May 26.
2020-2021 California president Vikita Poindexter, who had initially recruited Carter into the role, was one of the recipients of the email.
“I got a text message from Charlotta and my first response was, what happened?” Poindexter, a human resources and diversity consultant, told The Plug.
“It was a tremendous challenge for me. I had been talking to the org about implementing change back in 2015, including adding more Black women to conferences and speaking engagements. But they never did anything about it,” she said.
In 2018, the organization launched a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee to develop focus groups and share reporting with national leaders. A statement shared via email with The Plug from the office of national president Jen Earle pointed to their 2020 effort to strengthen their DEI commitments in 2020 through scholarships to conferences for women of color, DEI-focused panel discussions, and naming four Black, Indigenous, and women of color identifying leaders to its national board.
In response to Carter’s resignation, NAWBO set up a meeting the following week to discuss the situation at hand. Carter and Poindexter said that NAWBO promised to launch an investigation and respond no later than June 15th with next steps. No such communication has been received to date by either Carter or Poindexter.
On June 11th, Poindexter issued her letter of resignation to NAWBO national and California members stating that July 1st would be her last day of service to the organization and writing that she will not “engage with or align with any representation of exclusion based on race, color, creed, or sexual orientation.”
Later that afternoon, NAWBO sent an organization-wide email informing members that it would launch an investigation into the allegations. Among the activities, NAWBO mentioned it would embark on designing a task force to create action steps to “ensure there is not a lack of support for NAWBO’s Black women business owners or any underrepresented group with the membership”.
Specific stats on what percentage of their membership identifies as Black women-owned businesses were also declined.
Carter said that more members and chapter presidents are opening up about their experiences with her personally, including one president she said had been hesitant to ask NAWBO national leadership to make a statement following the murder of George Floyd for fear of being ostracized.
“I’m volunteering my efforts and time. If I don’t say something, I’m complicit,” Carter said. “I don’t want to build a board or membership into this environment.”
No additional details about the results of the investigation have been released by NAWBO.
“We can fully assure you that we take this matter seriously. While we are constrained from commenting about the matter, we are leading with transparency. Our members are aware of the task force and the work it has undertaken,” a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement to The Plug.
“In the meantime, we are continuing our day-to-day work to address and meet the varied needs of all of our members as they work and strive to maintain the success of their women-owned businesses.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that the incoming president of NAWBO made disparaging remarks. The correction has been made to reflect that remarks were allegedly made by the incoming board chair of National.