A panel at the “Past, Present and Future Opportunities for Diverse Entrepreneurs” forum included, from left, Craig Livingston, Adam Moore, Ilka Gregory, Eric Freeman, Wesly Saintil Arbuthnott and moderator Craig Melvin, an NBC news anchor. / Photos by Gary Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Providing opportunities and nurturing innovation — many different ways — were issues discussed by a gathering of diverse entrepreneurs with diverse businesses Thursday night at the Westport Library.

The forum, “Past, Present and Future Opportunities for Diverse Entrepreneurs,” was planned for the last day of  Black History Month by StartUp Westport, a group founded to support entrepreneurs in the town’s innovation and tech sector, and Westport 10, a community club for people of color. More than 100 people attended.

Two speaker panels described their businesses, their career challenges and offered support for other minority and female entrepreneurs.

Another panel at the Thursday program on entrepreneurship included, from left, Pamela Moss, Kitt Shapiro, Michele Peterson, Ted Parker, Paige Parker and Jay Norris, moderator.

Among the panelists were real estate entrepreneurs Craig Livingston of Exact Capital Group and Eric Freeman of Grandview Partners; health-related business owners Paige and Ted Parker, and Adam Moore; and Wesly Saintil Arbuthnott, who won a  Connecticut Restaurant Association “Best New Restaurant” award for his Bridgeport restaurant, 29 Markle, after a year in business. 

Others included Michele Peterson and Pamela Moss from BlackLight, a search engine for Black-owned businesses called a “Google for Black businesses.” Kitt Shapiro, singer Eartha Kitt’s daughter and the owner of West women’s clothing boutique in Westport, also was a panel member.

One of the groups was moderated by NBC news anchor Craig Melvin, and the other by Jay Norris, a co-founder of Westport 10. 

Lack of affordable housing became a focus of discussion by the first panel when Livingston spoke about the challenges his business faced trying to develop affordable housing in New York City and five other states. 

Livingston’s company received 45,000 applications for one affordable housing development, he said, because there is a severn-million-unit deficit for affordable housing in the U.S.

“The demand for affordable housing is insatiable,” he said.

At the second panel, the owners of the Vibrant Health, Paige and Ted Parker, explained how difficult it can be for minority entrepreneurs to obtain funding for their business ventures.

Before buying their business, they had to mortgage their house and other property and get financial help from relatives. “We had to make hard decisions … necessary decisions,” Paige Parker said. Their business is currently one of the 100 top Black-owned businesses in the U.S.

At the start of the forum, Norris spoke about recent concerns expressed by local Black and minority parents about how their children are treated in Westport’s schools. 

“The behavior in our school system has been very disappointing,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable in this community.” 

Westport has had a reputation of being liberal and “a community that leans in,” Norris added. “Our children in Westport must be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin,” he said, alluding to the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The entrepreneurship forum was followed by a reception and networking, first in the library and then a local restaurant.

Another program focused on business diversity, “Female Founders and Investors,” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 18, in the library, sponsored by StartUp Westport and the Tidal River Fund for female investors.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.