As a platform that focuses on Charlotte’s Black perspectives and experiences, QCity Metro is celebrating National Black Business Month at a time when the nation is facing a public health crisis and demanding racial equity.
Black Power Moves 2020 is a series where we’ll highlight industries and notable members of Charlotte’s Black business community. Discussions will include the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement and how to move forward.
Part I highlights the leaders of Black Business Owners of Charlotte and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce and how they’ve responded over the last several months.
Cathay Dawkins and Shanté Williams are two of the area’s most influential figures in the Black business community. Dawkins, founder of Black Business Owners of Charlotte (BBOC), and Williams, chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce (CMBCC), not only lead two of the most engaged groups for Black business owners, but they also host the “In Your Business” podcast. As we’ve moved into the second half of the year, both shared challenges and opportunities for local Black business owners and reflect on what has been a year like no other.
Dawkins was elated about what looked to be a big year for BBOC. In addition to planning for signature events like Food Truck Fridays and Charlotte Black Restaurant Week, the group developed a partnership with Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. Once the coronavirus began to spread across the country, things quickly changed.
“We lost a lot of money in a week,” Dawkins said during a phone interview. “We went from so much planned to me calling insurance companies while vacationing at a beach in Florida trying to see if they will still cover our events.”
By the beginning of March, BBOC canceled a dozen events scheduled through October. Its annual Charlotte Black Restaurant Week is still up in the air.
“It’s been devastating to BBOC and businesses that rely on us and plan their budgets around our events,” he said.
The Queen City was part of a national trend. A study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research stated that 41% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. closed permanently between February and April.
“While 41% is heartbreaking, that number is low,” Williams said. “Due to the nature of the type of businesses that Black business owners tend to start, a lot of them aren’t even on the radar to be considered businesses. If you are a solopreneur, you likely don’t fit in one of those statistical categories.”
Williams has had a much different pandemic experience than most. As chief executive officer of Black Pearl Global Investments, a venture capital fund, she doesn’t sell a product or service. Her specialty as a healthcare venture capitalist made Black Pearl highly sought after.
“Things picked up for us and all the portfolio companies that we have for Black Pearl,” she explained. “I ended up with double the business in the first few weeks of Covid-19 because people were needing to build more robust supply chains…digital investing, access to capital and advisement.”
As local leaders, Dawkins and Williams felt compelled to aid fellow entrepreneurs suffering from the economic impact of the virus. Both provided information and resources to business owners who reached out for advice.
In June, CMBCC received a $200,000 grant from the City of Charlotte and used the funds for its Back-to-Business Technical Assistance Grant program, which helps businesses that closed or were on the brink of closing because of the pandemic.
BBOC’s Facebook marketplace typically buzzes with people looking to find products and services offered by Black businesses. Advertising to the group’s 19,000 marketplace followers is reserved for active BBOC members, but recognizing the financial hardship created from the economic downturn, BBOC leadership lifted the policy to allow any business owner to advertise free of charge from March 15 through July 1.
Williams said her conversations with business owners through CMBCC exposed a level of resource-sharing she never saw in Charlotte. She praised legal and financial professionals and others who offered their expertise to help business owners apply for loans and complete paperwork. Williams recalled businesses that entered into temporary partnerships to assist each other with services.
“It definitely made me feel a sense of community,” she said. “The only way that we not only get through the Covid-19 pandemic … to scale to levels I know we can achieve, it’s going to take all of us pulling together.”
‘Buy Black’ activism
Racial tensions were on the rise in 2020 with a string of high-profile deaths of unarmed Black people. Video footage captured the final moments of Ahmaud Arbrey; grassroot efforts raised attention to Breonna Taylor. But the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis seemed to be the tipping point, sparking nationwide protests and demands for change. The desire to spend dollars with Black businesses surged.
Major corporations rolled out statements with commitments to funding and supporting Black businesses and initiatives. Dawkins and Williams liked the direction, but past experiences have them both heavily guarded.
“This is something we have been doing since 2014,” Dawkins explained. “I have met a lot of business executives, and they weren’t as present as they are now. I’m thankful that a shift has occurred, but I’m concerned that a lot of it is related to what is coming down the pipeline.”
Dawkins believes that within six months to a year, there will be a substantial increase in grants specific to Black and Latino communities. He fears that some non-Black organizations will look to cash in at the expense of minority business owners.
Additionally, Williams is frustrated because she has seen groups make promises to provide greater access to capital for minorities. Once the funds were disbursed, however, very little went to people of color. Research from the University of California states that the average Black entrepreneur starts a business with $35,000 in capital, a third of the amount of a white entrepreneur.
“I’m tired of announcements and vanity shows of support,” Williams said. “That’s all great, but it doesn’t move the needle if it doesn’t come with more action. I’ve seen this cycle before, and what’s been lacking is accountability.”
Williams said it will take business owners who have been active in the racial equity movement to force companies to follow through on their public statements. She is encouraging businesses that are ready to make that next step to “shoot your shot” and ask these companies how to become one of their service providers.
With no Covid-19 vaccine and cases still on the rise in many states, including North and South Carolina, it’s uncertain when businesses most impacted by Covid-19 may return to normal. The reality is that it may never get back to normal.
BBOC had contingencies in place, but they also raised money to offset some of their losses this year. More importantly, Dawkins has restructured BBOC into a corporate nonprofit hybrid organization. He believes the change will allow BBOC to access funds in the future to help support its mission.
For Williams, she’s hoping 2020 will show Black business owners the need for a more progressive approach. She’d like to see businesses diversify their customer bases, revenue streams and funding strategies.
She says CMBCC’s latest grant program may provide a framework for supporting entrepreneurs who need technical assistance and Black ventures that are providing such guidance.
Starting a business can be risky, and despite the current outlook, Dawkins and Williams both say those interested in starting a business shouldn’t second-guess themselves.
“With 41% of businesses closing, we need new businesses to offset some of those losses,” Dawkins said. “It opens up the door for new businesses and fresh ideas. When we close doors like that, it hurts the entire community.”