Q&A: Anistia Thomas of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Black Chamber of Commerce

As a business owner for 12 years, Anistia Thomas' experience has been considerably more diverse than most. Working with LSO Designs in L.A. and then for her own company, Phiaria International Design Group, in New York, Thomas designed for celebrities including Prince, Beyonce and Jay-Z. In 2009 she settled in Ann Arbor to open the Anistia Thomas Farmers Insurance Agency. Now she's embarking on yet another unique project as the president of the newly opened Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Black Chamber of Commerce. 
The chamber, which is one of eight chambers under the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, formally opened last month. It's organized by a six-member board, with honorary chair members including Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber and Google's Chris Genteel. With 36 member businesses so far, the chamber is currently running a membership drive. For a fee of $150 per year, membership is available to any area businesses that are more than 51% black-owned. We spoke with Thomas about the chamber's mission and the challenges facing black business owners in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
Why do you think a black chamber of commerce is important in Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti right now?
It's important because we have so many African-American business owners within the area that are seeking resources to help develop their businesses. Per our Census findings, there's 3,200 African-American businesses between Ann Arbor and Ypsi. So we're looking to help improve their business acumen and provide resources for them.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing black business owners in Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti?
Definitely brand awareness is one of the biggest challenges. That's why we're working so closely with Google to provide resources to business owners, because we see that they're lacking in an online presence. The second thing is funding resources and opportunity. Typically start-up companies have the tendency to need a lot of collateral, and most businesses do not have that. 
What initiatives is the chamber planning to assist business owners with?
One of the things to really emphasize is our 5 pillars of service and that [we] deal with advocacy, creating opportunities for small business owners, and will collaborate with our policymakers throughout the state of Michigan. We deal directly with the policymakers so we can address the issues that are important to entrepreneurship and growth.
…We're also working with Google on the Google Boot Camp. These are workshops where these small businesses register with us and Google holds a workshop where they're able to develop their own Google Plus business page. One of the things that comes with the membership is they get their own website with Google. They get a customized URL and free web hosting for a year. 
We also have an extensive programming initiative that we're really excited about. We've actually titled it Entrepreneurship 101, and there are workshops that are held on the weekend and deal with assisting small business owners. That's going to start in the fall. …We're also working on opening up international business opportunities for small business owners and looking at government opportunities and contract opportunities that may be available for small business owners.
How do you feel about the existing Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber? Is it fully serving black business owners' needs?
I think what's great about the Ann Arbor/Ypsi Chamber is that it's not about specifics. I think their purpose is to serve everyone, which is why we're looking to collaborate with them. I think it's important for us to support each other as organizations. We aren't here to separate ourselves from any other organization. 

All photos by Doug Coombe

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