Chana Ewing's company, Geenie, used to run a subscription box service for smaller beauty brands owned by Black women. Now, she and her Brooklyn-based employees are pivoting to build an e-commerce marketplace to link customers to inclusive brands. When Covid-19 first hit, Ewing and Sheena Collier, the CEO of membership group Boston While Black, started weekly Zoom calls for their network of Black women business owners, billing the sessions as business and wellness checks. This Saturday, they considered canceling the call. Instead, they left it open, dropped the more structured conversations, and just gave people space to vent. They did.
As the country reacts with outrage over the killing of George Floyd, Black business owners are leveraging their networks and communities to commiserate, strategize, and push for a better world. As in Ewing's network, they vented their anger but also helped one another think through how they should be responding. Should they protest? Donate? Rest? "It was figuring out what is their highest and best use," says Ewing. "You are trying to manage your life, manage your family, manage your business, and figure out how to be a human being at such a high-density moment. There is so much coming at you. We are trying to give people a little hand, and the space and encouragement to do that."
Tammeca Rochester's 11-person business, exercise studio Harlem Cycle, had to close its doors March 15. By March 17, she was offering free movement and fitness sessions daily on Instagram Live. Over the next few weeks, she reached out to influencers in yoga and meditation to conduct sessions for her clients. "I knew we needed to focus on mental strength in this," she says.
In the aftermath of the protests, she contacted businesses she knew in Harlem, asking how they could help one another. In the next couple of weeks, she says, some of the restaurants she contacted will do cooking demonstrations on her company's Instagram Live, and will place flyers for her business in their takeout orders. She's in the process of forming a Black women business owners' network particularly for New York City. She's already in regular contact with about 20 other Black women business owners.
Before this weekend, she says, the biggest topic was funding: "Where do we go from here? How long can you go with zero revenue?" Now, she says, the tone is changing. "I have a profound sense of responsibility to make sure my community comes through not only the pandemic but also through the injustices we are facing."
With much of the country still under shelter-in-place orders, a lot of that organizing and support is happening online. Deanna Singh runs a consulting business, called Uplifting Impact, that helps businesses with leadership, diversity, and inclusion. "Liking other people's posts is not action," she says. "But I am also not going to be out there leading the marches, now that I have kids to get to bed by 7:30."
But about seven years ago, her husband, a professor at Marian University, was arrested at 5:30 in the morning as he jogged through their Milwaukee neighborhood. "They threw him to the ground and never communicated to him why he was being detained," she says. Her husband, who was released after about four hours, is Black and Mixed Race. She is Black and Indian. She worked in criminal defense, and his father had been a trainer at the police academy. They knew their rights, but didn't have the ability, emotionally, to press charges. "That pain sits with us," she says. The Floyd killing spurred them to offer a free Zoom seminar on how to explain the recent events to children. Singh posted the invitation on Facebook late on Saturday evening, and by Monday afternoon more than 100 people had signed up.
Craig J. Lewis points out that just being a Black business owner is to engage with a community. Lewis, a serial entrepreneur and former professional basketball player, now runs Dallas-based Gig Wage, an eight-person fintech company that helps companies pay independent contractors. "Being seen not only helps your business but helps those breaking in to know it is possible," he says. So in many ways, he believes the best thing he can do for his community is to "get those deals done so we can put some good news out there."
He still feels a call to educate others -- even if part of his message is that it's not the job of Black people to educate anyone else about racism. "VC twitter right now is learning a lot," he says. "I am trying to participate in some of that discussion, even though it still is draining." He sees lots of VCs who are offering office hours and encouraging Black and Brown entrepreneurs to send in their pitch decks. "That's all cool," he says. "But it's also about pushing back and saying, 'Let's look at your portfolio and see what entrepreneurs you've invested in.'" He looks to a group of Black founders on Twitter to back each other up, including Clarence Bethea, a Minnesota entrepreneur who has raised $8.5 million for his insurtech company, Upsie.
Lewis remains active in mentoring Black small-business owners. Before this weekend, he says he mostly got questions about navigating the pandemic. Now, the conversations are more likely to be about mental health.
Related: In the wake of nationwide protests against the killing of Black Americans by police, Inc. asked Black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
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