Connecting with Moncello Stewart
I arrived early for my interview with Moncello Stewart, President of the Greater Savannah Black Chamber of Commerce (GSBCC). He suggested a place right outside the historic district of Savannah – Coffee Deli. Clearly, this is a local hot spot as I arrived before 8:00 AM, and people were already set up with laptops or engaged in spirited conversations.
As I settled in with my cup of coffee, I started to scroll through Moncello's LinkedIn profile. We've never met, but my friends at the Savannah Economic Development Authority insisted that he was a great leader to profile for Grow Georgia.
I learned that Moncello is not only leading the Chamber but also works full time at Savannah State University. I thought to myself, that can't be right – in my experience, a traditional Chamber presidency is a full-time job and then some.
A man walks in the door that looks like the LinkedIn profile I'm currently viewing. Almost everyone greets him – this is an earmark of a Chamber President - they know everyone.
As we started our conversation, I quickly learned that while Moncello has similarities to other chamber leaders – community knowledge, advocacy skills, connector – his role and goals are far from ordinary.
Over the next hour, Moncello shared his vision for the Chamber - and confirmed its vital role in connecting businesses across the region.
Vanessa (VW): Thanks again for making the time. I know you're busy (I'm about to learn just how busy), so we can jump right in.
I think it's fair to say that "Chamber President" isn't a typical career path – how did you find yourself in this role?
Moncello (MS): I'm a native of Savannah. My brother, who was five years older, opened a t-shirt shop, which he still has today. He's been in business for about 22 years, so most people knew me from the t-shirt shop, but I've always helped on the community organizing side.
I am the former president of the Pan-Hellenic Council, which supports historically Black fraternities and sororities, and the former vice president of my neighborhood association. I'm in 100 Black Men of Savannah, helping with Special CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). And I have been active on a few boards here, like Step Up Savannah and Citizen Advocacy, a nonprofit focused on adults with disabilities.
I just got involved in the community, and then people in politics were like, "Hey Moncello, we can use your help to get some votes out." I realized that all of my involvement could do a lot of good advocating for the causes I cared about- like black-owned businesses. That was what started my path to where I am today.
VW: I'm exhausted just trying to list all those organizations! You have obviously been active in the community in a variety of ways. You're also a business owner, right?
MS: I have a business called Trident Strategy Group, in which I do marketing and political consulting. I'm thinking about moving to focus on lobbying at some point, but right now, I like the business because I get called on to help small and minority-owned businesses. These companies don't have the budget to put into a marketing campaign or the capital needed to grow.
VW: You mentioned something we all hear a lot of businesses struggle with– money and access to capital.
MW: Everybody says access to capital, and I hate that. I am just saying that because everybody wants money. We all know that.
But if I give you the capital, do you know what to do with it? Do you know how to maintain that capital? And I think that's one of the things that we want to push.
VW: When I worked with startups, I used to say the best funding is customers.
MS: Exactly. One of the biggest things we want to get out to our members is certifications. We need everybody to get their DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise).
If you are a business that will qualify for certain bids, we want you to be able to bid on construction projects. Some people think DBE stuff is all construction, and that's a part of it. But it could be a restaurant that bids on a contract to serve food on a construction project. It could be a marketing firm – there are a lot of contracts out there!
VW: You got passionate about that point – do you see many small firms miss those opportunities?
MS: It's funny, people used to pull me up online, and large companies asked me to bid on contracts with them, but I was like, "This is great, but I'm just not ready for it."
But it goes back to what you're trying to do and where you want to go. Unfortunately, I did not have the resources or training back then and probably missed out on a lot of money, just not being ready. But by going through that, that's why I started joining local chambers.
VW: That's a good point- what you're trying to do and where you want to go. How does the Chamber help businesses that want to reach the point where they can bid on significant contracts.
MS: At the Black Chamber, we have around 260 members, and many are women-owned and mom-and-pop shops. They don't have a brick-and-mortar yet, but they want to get there. We offer a mix of resources to help them reach whatever goals they have.
We do monthly training on topics like how to market your business, write a business plan, and do just those essential, foundational things.
I also do a lot of the work 1:1 with a business.
I get to go into small businesses that ask, "Hey, listen, I got this small budget. What can I do?"
And you'd be surprised at what they need. Some people ask, "How can my menu or social media look better?" Others want help getting more involved in the community, and that is where our Chamber can step up.
I get businesses that call me up and say, "Listen, I would love to give a scholarship. Can you help me get that scholarship together?"
Those are impactful things I get to do.
VW: I always think of chambers for their business directory and a place to find local businesses.
MS: We also have the networking opportunities and put on a monthly mixer. Mixers help businesses meet 50 or so people every month and talk about their products or services within the community.
At events like ours, I know if I give out twenty business cards, I'm getting at least ten phone calls the next day. It works.
VW: Clearly, small business growth is a priority for you and the Chamber - is that part of the greater vision or role you see yourself playing?
MS: I want the average person in our area to wake up, and when they think of the best place for coffee or shopping, they think of a black-owned business.
We are not trying to seclude ourselves but think of it this way; a white business owner or white citizen could go their whole life without shopping with a black business if they wanted. They could shop, eat and go wherever they wanted to go, and not have to work with a black company. A black citizen can't do the same.
In the short time I sat with Moncello I met a few of his friends at the café. We had to pause a few times because, well, everyone wanted to say hello to him. Community leaders like Nancy DeVetter, City Council of Tybee Island, Georgia and Georgia Seaborough with Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy, and even the barista. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a line formed at his table after I left.
If I had to say why everyone is drawn to him, it is because during our conversation it was clear that he wants what’s best for everyone in his community. During the conversation he expressed time and time again the importance of working together and finding shared understanding and goals. He shared times when he stepped outside of his comfort zone to grow - when you meet him please ask about the LGBTQ+ flag football games in the park.
After our conversation, I had some time between meetings, and true to his purpose, Moncello insisted that I visit “Mailbox Café", a black-owned coffee shop (which I did of course). If you find yourself in Savannah at the cafe, I recommend that you ask for Alix a young entrepreneur and an outstanding host!
Chambers of commerce exist nationwide to further the interests of their member businesses. In the Savannah region, the Greater Black Chamber of Commerce is doing all of that while building bridges in the community.
Across Georgia, leaders like Moncello, and organizations are committed to helping businesses grow. Connect with the GSBCC by clicking here.
Find organizations in your region by clicking here or navigating to the CONNECT tab on our site. You can also find information on statewide and national resources to obtain certifications for your business here or navigate to the GROW tab.