With the unemployment rate at an all-time high and more Black Americans looking to start their own companies, the need for workforce development and business support programming is growing every day. Luc El-Art Severe and his team at United Way NYC are looking to respond to these needs.
From a young age, minister, Haitian Roundtable member, and law school professor Luc El-Art Severe has found a way to serve his community with excellence. Whether professionally through his role as former senior advisor and Stakeholder Engagement Lead for the Virgin Islands of the Governor’s Hurricane Recovery Taskforce, or voluntarily through his annual college, career, and scholarship fair he co-founded with his sister, or serving with Double Love Experience Church, Severe finds success is only worth it if he lifts others as he climbs.
A proud and active member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., Severe’s mindset plus his work experience equals the perfect formula for his current role as vice president of Small Business and Workforce Development with United Way of NYC. Last year, with the growing adverse effects of the pandemic that disproportionately affected the Black community, United Way NYC and a few of their valued partners joined together to help Black businesses and individuals to recover by creating Together We Thrive.
BlackEnterprise.com connected with Severe to discuss the program and his career journey.
BlackEnterprise.com: How did ‘Together We Thrive’ come about?
Luc Severe: There has been historical disproportionality of inequities in resources when it comes to Black-owned businesses in NYC and that really revealed itself and exacerbated because of COVID. In NYC, pre-pandemic there were only 2% of Black entrepreneurs and Black-owned businesses in New York City although 22% of New York City residents are Black.
United Way, which has served communities around the world for several years, created this network called ‘Together We Thrive Black Business Network,’ which is a coalition that provides access to capital, network, and technical assistance needed to support the survival, success, and sustainability of Black-owned businesses.
BE: Can you tell us about your journey to supporting Black businesses and why it is so important to you?
Severe: I’m a proud alumni of Morehouse College and while there, we studied everything Black. We were promoting everything Black but it didn’t stop with that. We also were taught empowerment and different ways that we could advocate and show up for our community because we understood that there was a long history of inequity and injustice that exists in this nation and in this world.
Through the years, I knew that I wanted to be an advocate so I pursued law and received my doctorate at Thomas Cooley Law School at Western Michigan. I was very adamant in wanting to do community work and wanting to show up for my community, but in a different lens—through changing policy and legislation, those things that give you the rights or tells you what you can or can’t do.
I worked in several different capacities with the public hospital system looking for my niche there and was able to advocate for healthcare in our communities and advocate for the workers who have been providing that care for our communities. I then transitioned to Children’s Services for New York City (ACS) where I was working on policies and procedures and I was part of the team overhauling our response to crises with an equity lens that I think was something that’s been missing for years.
In 2017-2018, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor tap me after the two category five hurricanes hit the US Virgin Islands. My mentor had been down there and actually was working on the cabinet with the Governor of the Virgin Islands. I was brought down to assist and be the Senior Advisor in Stakeholder Engagement Lead. A big part of my role was hearing from the community the impact, hearing from the government, what our response was going to be, and putting together stakeholders and advocates who could help push this agenda and push what needs to happen to rebuild quickly and timely.
Further, we had a responsibility where we had to write a report to the federal government requesting money. For that, we needed to tell the story of what all of this means and so I was able to quickly connect with business owners and chambers of commerce, which, consistent with the Virgin Islands, were mainly Black. It’s a territory that’s had injustices and inequalities. When you talk about resources being poured out, they haven’t had adequate resources poured into them.
So I started realizing that this is a calling of mine. I asked myself ‘How do I help advocate for businesses who are decimated by disasters?’ because they impact the communities. Further, if the breadwinner of the family was a business owner and that business has gone, that’s it.
When I came back to New York, from doing that work, I found myself really wanting to keep going. By the grace of God, I was appointed to the Empire State Development, where I was vice president of Business Development for the New York State Minority and Women Business Enterprise. Then shortly after I was recruited to this role with United Way, which has been a blessing and a response to my passion for helping our communities and helping our Black businesses strive and thrive.