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Upending the Status Quo

Black-owned businesses ride the tide of a national awakening



As protests against systemic racism continue and statues of slave owners and white supremacists are toppled, a much-less photogenic and wonkier revolution has begun. From the U.S. Senate to think tanks to local nonprofits, economic injustice and wealth disparity are hot topics—for the fundamental reason that without confronting these issues, minority communities will remain in poverty. The equation is simple: Economic injustice, fueled by centuries of racism, equals poverty.

The link between entrepreneurship and escaping poverty is well documented. Former investment banker Devin Thorpe, in an article for, wrote, "Entrepreneurship—especially social entrepreneurship—brings value to the fight against poverty that other players—governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) don't."

The Covid-19 pandemic has both exacerbated the problem and forced a confrontation with it. Still attempting to recover from the Great Recession (during which Black households lost 40 percent of wealth, according to the Social Science Research Council), Black-owned businesses have taken another huge hit.

A study published this month for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Robert Fairlie at the University of California, Santa Cruz, stated that from February to April, the number of actively working Black business owners fell 41 percent.

"Although there has been a partial rebound," the study noted, "the number of actively working African-American business owners remains 26 percent lower than in February 2020, which is the highest for any major racial/ethnic group."

The federal government's $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) didn't help micro-businesses that don't have employees. It didn't work for small businesses—many of them Black-owned—that did not have long-established relationships with banks. Now, even with a new proposal on the Congressional table that would allocate $50 billion in grants, instead of loans, to state and local governments for the truly small businesses, as well as nonprofits, it's cities, local agencies and in some cases, individuals, that have stepped up to help Black-owned businesses survive.

By March, the Oakland African-American Chamber of Commerce was receiving calls from small business owners desperate to save their livelihoods. These calls were very hard to listen to, said Cathy Adams, the chamber's president and CEO. She knew something had to be done to help. One of the organization's 210 active members called to say they had some connections in the business community who might step up. Adams stayed up most of one April weekend brainstorming, and by the end of it, had mapped out the concept for the Resiliency Relief Fund. Members and other funders would contribute to a $1 million goal, which would then be used for grants to struggling businesses. Adams referred to this idea as "utilizing our own eco-system."

By the first week in July, the fund had received more than 78,000 individual donations, as well as major support from corporations such as Clorox, which donated $200,000. Adams was confident the original goal would be met, and that of the 158 applications in the first round of granting, all applicants who qualified would receive some assistance.

"Each business that gets a grant will also be required to take our Business Financial Training class," Adams emphasized. The course teaches proper preparation of profit-and-loss statements, for example, required by most funders. "This is giving us an opportunity to reboot and emerge stronger," she said.

Adams has also reached out to the greater Bay Area business community, citing a positive networking session with the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce, some of whose members made personal contributions to the Resiliency Fund.

Chamber member and micro-business owner/CEO Ariana Marbley of Esscents of Flowers was lucky in one sense—she has no brick-and-mortar location. All ordering is done by phone or online, so she did not need to close her doors. But the four-year-old business lost a huge percentage of its income when weddings and other events placing big floral orders were canceled by rules prohibiting large gatherings.

Although her delivery service was still operating, initially she had no access to flowers, as the Oakland Flower Market shut down. Marbley reconnected with another small business, West Oakland's Boxcar Flower Farm, and was able to continue to make 10–15 deliveries a week. Then she had an inspiration. She created a "yellow rose campaign," in which a yellow rose was delivered to individuals to honor the protests over George Floyd's and others' deaths. Hundreds of people participated, many learning about the business for the first time.

With no employees, Marbley didn't qualify for the PPP, but she has since received a small loan from the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program. She's also applied to the Runway Project, founded to help close the wealth gap between Black and white entrepreneurs. She has continued to partner with other Black-owned businesses, including Los Angeles–based Two Chicks in the Mix, which bakes mini-cakes to be delivered with Esscents of Flowers' arrangements.

Esscents of Flowers deliveries have now increased to 40–60 per week, and Marbley is looking to hire her first part-time employee.

Another Oakland organization finding ways to cope is the Black Arts Movement Business District/Community Development Corporation (BAMBD/CDC). Founded in 2016 by theater-artist Ayodele Nzinga, the District itself is still awaiting promised funding from the city to expand its mission of promoting Black artists and entrepreneurs in an area stretching along the 14th Street corridor.

Nevertheless, Nzinga has organized Rapid Response Funding, channeling grants and donations to individuals and businesses directly impacted by the pandemic. The BAMBD/CDC site features an extensive list of resources available to small business owners.


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