As nationwide protests against the killing of Black Americans by police continue, Inc. has asked Black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
Natanya Montgomery barely got her business off the ground before she had to close it. In February, she launched Naza, a 15-employee beauty and wellness startup in San Francisco with a salon that specializes in coily, kinky, Afro-textured hair (known as protective styling). Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit. As a solution, she launched the Naza StyleBox, a direct-to-consumer hair styling kit to help women of color do their hair at home. The kits, priced at $55 to $119, sold out in 24 hours. The George Floyd protests would present another challenge: leading her all-Black team through a time of anger and grief. --As told to Brit Morse
As a founder, I'm in a really fortunate position where I'm able to provide grace for my team and my community. But there's still a lot of pressure to be on and working in a time when you just feel so much.
At first, I reached out to the team to let everyone know that we were going to hold space to talk about it in a meeting. And I let them know how I was feeling and what my initial reactions were. Then, we went around and talked about it--and we've been holding space for that, for asking people how they're doing.
I'm a CEO with a Black team, leading a Black community that wants to validate Black women and the beauty of Black womanhood. All we do is celebrate the beauty of Black lives. That's our whole company. It's baked into our existence. At first, I didn't know if we needed a statement, the way that everyone else is coming out with something. But now we make sure that it's explicitly clear to everyone what our stance is, and we're talking about anti-Black violence.
There are two different parts of this revolution, so to speak. We need to be rested, and we also need to act. So we want to also serve as a healing haven for all Black folks who need one. If you're a Black person experiencing this sort of very public, collective trauma and grief, there are no expectations of how you are supposed to look, feel, behave, respond.
We are building something that is bigger than hair and bigger than wellness and beauty. We always have been. We are building a legacy that celebrates and validates and caters to the beauty and wholeness of Black and Brown women in an industry and a world that continues to undervalue us. When you think about the pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting the health of Black and Brown women, and the world, which is attacking Black and Brown women every single day without repercussion, creating a space of celebration and joy around Black women couldn't be more important. Our mission just became amplified.
We had our first event the weekend after the initial protests. We had a braid party. A couple hundred women came to learn cornrows, and we did a healing breath-work session. I also addressed what was going on and why we were offering the space for free. We're hosting a Champagne Friday event right now where I'm engaging with the community. It's a personal thing, because I hate to be on video, but it's important to connect with folks so they know I'm available. Our most recent one was with [Reddit co-founder] Alexis Ohanian, one of my investors.
It all feels like this thing that you have been yelling about your whole life is finally being heard. It's like you've been saying the sky is green for hundreds of years, and no one will believe you--like you've been living in the same world, but living a completely different experience. And now it's like people are finally looking up and realizing that it's pretty green.
I think the whole experience is draining. It's the general pile-on of being a leader during this time: trying to ship products, trying to lead a community of Black women, trying to manage my emotions as a Black woman separate from my leadership, talking to investors about what the next steps are for my business, where money comes and goes. All of those things are extraordinarily taxing. I can feel the weight; it's a lot of weight. And, you know, sometimes I feel challenged and inspired to do work, and sometimes I feel heavy and lethargic. I find myself overcome with emotion in moments that I wouldn't expect. I ordered some [Korean] food; they forgot my kimchi, and I almost started crying. And I was just like, well, I guess that's the way it's going to express itself. It's just a time of unexpected emotion right now.
There are those things that have made me hopeful. Seeing people take public stances on social media and during protests, specifically saying Black Lives Matter and firmly denouncing anti-Black violence at scale for the first time in my lifetime has made me hopeful. Also, the amplification and elevation of more Black creators and voices and businesses in a way that I have never seen before. And then there are the little things, like the arrival of stone fruit season and cherries coming into bloom. And the champagne lemon ricotta pancakes from my favorite place that has been able to reopen.
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