Bridging the Gap for Black-Owned Businesses

We dedicate each February in the United States as Black History Month — a celebration of leaders and legends who have empowered our Black communities and changed the whole of our society. When we learn about remarkable people like Madam C.J. Walker and Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy and Tyler Perry, we realize how difficult the journey has been for even the most famous Black entrepreneurs. Despite their rarity, such success stories serve as inspiration for new generations to seek full independence, to knock on doors that seldom opened for those before them, and to ultimately rely on their own ambition, creativity, and talent to assure their well-being and to help others do the same. Therefore, Black History Month is a time not only for retrospection on our shared history but for collective introspection about our shared responsibility. Given the past accomplishments of Black and African American people in this country, we must pose ourselves the question of what we can do to facilitate Black achievement today and in the future.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau (from its 2018 Annual Business Survey) estimate that there are nearly 125,000 Black or African American-owned employer firms (meaning firms with at least one paid employee) and that the total number of employer and nonemployer firms hovers around 2.5 million. On one hand, it is encouraging to know that so many Black entrepreneurs have been able to chase their dreams and fill a need in their communities. On the other hand, the reports also note that Black-owned businesses are underrepresented relative to the size of the Black and African-American population. Moreover, the gap between the total number of Black-owned firms and employer firms is astounding: it is evident that while Black entrepreneurs continue to pursue projects by themselves, they have difficulty taking that next step of growing their business and maintaining that growth.

Plenty of potential obstacles may explain this phenomenon: failures in public and private lending, economic downturns, rising costs, and so on. However, there are equally numerous policies and practices that municipalities and their departments can use to help Black and other minority entrepreneurs who seek to scale their fledgling businesses. While business incubators and other startup investments are a popular and effective method, we acknowledge that they are cost-intensive and require constant management. So, we suggest smaller yet meaningful ways for counties, cities, and towns to support their Black business communities by organizing efforts around Education, Support, and Recognition:

“Teach someone to fish,” but for a new, online economy. Teach your minority entrepreneurs the digital skills they’ll need as sole proprietors. Local schools, libraries, and churches are natural learning centers to host adult business classes for basic design (from websites to business cards), voice recording (from podcasts to streaming ads), and photography (from angles to editing).

Show that the entire community is invested in your entrepreneurs’ success by involving high school and college students in shaping the image of local businesses. In addition to fostering strong town-gown relationships in your community, such a program could exchange private donations to music, arts, and marketing departments for a jingle, a logo, or a social media marketing strategy. Your entrepreneurs get much-needed tools; your students get much-needed funding and experience; and you get to build a network and talent pipeline for the future.

Ultimately, Black History Month is most impactful when it recognizes and praises the contributions of Black and African-American community members, both past and present. For this initiative, you’ll want to create a meaningful award or designation for Black entrepreneurs in your community. Name the distinction in honor of a prominent Black hero in your community and bestow it on one or more deserving business-owners. Each of them will be able to display a plaque, window cling, or banner at their office or small business, and they will be a part of a close-knit group of mentors for future entrepreneurs. Be sure to define worthy recipients in terms of their involvement in the community as opposed to their financial success.

Remember that just because it’s March 1st, that does not mean that you have to wait until next February to honor and make Black History in your community. Celebrating your diversity through more inclusionary opportunities and practices can be an ongoing effort that benefits from input and collaboration across the board. Because it’s never too late, or early, to work towards more equitable prosperity.