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Left to right: Khine Zaw, Zach Wilcha, Regina Hairston
Leaders of the Diverse Chambers of Philadelphia were in attendance for a panel on the power of chamber unity at the 2023 AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs ceremony. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick

Philly’s Diverse Chambers underscore barriers, unity, and the power of coalition at AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs

The 2023 ceremony featured a moving conversation with unity of Philly’s chambers of commerce at the center.

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The spirit of Philadelphia’s business community is reliable, sturdy, and persevering. 

On the night of Friday, Feb. 24, the minds behind Philly’s Diverse Chambers of Commerce met publicly during a panel discussion — moderated by CNBC Contributor Janet Álvarez — to stress the power of coalition to inspire material change. 

The panel served as an informative, though reflective precursor to an award ceremony dedicated to AL DÍA’s Top Entrepreneurs, many of whom had to be scrappy and resourceful as they built impactful community-serving businesses. 

Regina Hairston, who is President and top executive of the African American Chamber of Commerce for the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware chapters, said the body coalesces around issues of mutual interest and importance to then brings them to Philly City Council. 

“We've been able to galvanize our membership in city council, in the mayor's administration, around issues that impact our businesses,” said Hairston, who added that decisions based on data obtained via surveys “allows us to determine from our businesses, what is impacting you that you wish for us to advocate for.” 

Her fellow panelist, Zach Wilcha, who helms the Independence Business Alliance - LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce, agreed. 

“We think about the challenges that are facing the businesses that we represent as a coalition, it actually is informed by the surveys that we do,” said Wilcha. 

Wilcha narrowed down those challenges to a methodical though thoughtful approach, breaking each down to a C: cost, clarity of doing business, cleanliness, and crime. Businesses, Wilcha noted, were clear about those hurdles.  

“One is the cost of doing business in Philadelphia, the cost is exorbitantly high in Philadelphia, [and] we’re are one of the few cities that has a double tax for small businesses,” said Wilcha, who joined the Independence Alliance in 2015. 

“Our businesses tell us all the time that that isn't the most one plate, it was the most onerous barrier that they had to surmount, to grow and thrive in this city of Philadelphia,” he added. 

It’s no secret among Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial community, whether established or up-and-coming. 

The city’s taxing structure, otherwise known as the Business Income and Receipts Tax, imposes levies on profits (6.25%) and sales (1.415% per $1,000), making it notoriously expensive to operate a venture from the outset. 

Wilcha, however, presented additional barriers to entry that compound the difficulty for business owners: regulations.

“There's a labyrinthine system of regulations in the city that make it difficult for people to start businesses and then to maintain those businesses, and in similarly situated cities, we see that there are far fewer steps to putting a business together,” said Wilcha. 

Studies conducted over the last few years prove Wilcha correct. Philly ranks among the worst cities to do business. A report by Arizona State University found that Philly ranks 71st of 130 cities sampled in the U.S. 

The last two C’s Wilcha offered were cleanliness and crime, which “would probably not surprise anybody who's living and working here.” 

“I hope it's a hopeful message that a coalition like ours is aligned in making sure that decision-makers and stakeholders in the city of Philadelphia understand what these hurdles are,” Wilcha remarked. 

“These small businesses that we represent are the backbone economically of the city, and we need to make sure that they are staying in the city and not wanting to move outside of the city to do business elsewhere.”

The third panelist, Khine Zaw, of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, said, “we all share the same amount of challenges.” 

“We want the city and all the other businesses, diverse businesses, to understand that it's not just your problem, everyone is on the same boat, [and] we have to work together to solve the issues,” Zaw shared. 

Asked about a wish they would like to see granted, each panelist shared insightful responses, pointing to the technical challenges business owners face. 

Hairston, who joined the coalition amid the pandemic, shared two. 

“Access to capital. Any capital that any business owner is seeking in our chamber, they have it hands down, they don't have to go through the hoops that they currently go through.”

Hairston went on to share a statistic that the moderator found impactful. Although the city’s Black community represented 39% of the population, they got only 3% of contracts.

“If I had one wish, it is that we can all find a way to make sure that the folks that want to do business with the city of Philadelphia have the access to do the business,” Hairston remarked. 

Álvarez, responding to Hairston’s wish, called the figure “outrageous.” 

“I take it as a personal mission to help change,” she said. 

Wilcha, granted a wish, also made two. “Philadelphia is the largest city in the country that is not using LGBT certifications,” he said, adding he would ideally like to see a diverse movement with a unified voice. 

“We're everywhere. We're part of every community, and we would love to see all of our communities working together in that way for economic uplift.” 

Saw, in turn, would like to see if “we can hold criminals accountable.” 

“That will be the number one incentive for businesses from all over the country, not just in Philadelphia, to come and invest in Philadelphia, to live in Philadelphia,” she said.

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