Inspired by the social justice movement, Black entrepreneurship rises

Sisters-in-law Ashley Billings and Zoe Baker both knew they could be strong business partners. After speaking all summer last year, Baker took their discussions to another level in an email.

“The e-mail was the formation of our company and the application for our business license,” recalls Billings. “That was the moment I was like, ‘We’re really doing this. We will do it.’ And it was exciting because, having come out of the social justice movement, we were conscientious about buying black and supporting small businesses. And now we would jump into the fray.”

Six months later, in May, she and Baker launched Collections from A+Zan online clothing boutique offering affordable luxury vacation wear to wear to the beach or to dinner out.

“We love fashion and we love to travel,” Baker said, “so it’s two passions that come together as a business. Also, the social justice movement inspired a buy black movement and inspired independence and acting for oneself. So for us it all came together.”

Ashley Billings (left) and Zoe Baker wear items from the A+Z Collection. Collections from A+Z

Her journey to business ownership reflects a surge in black entrepreneurship after the first month of the pandemic. The companies were initially crushed by the on-site protection orders. But out of necessity and inspired by the Black Lives Matter-led social justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, more black workers became business owners than workers of other races, according to Robert Fairlie, a researcher and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Fairlies Databased on an analysis of US Census Bureau data, shows that from February 2020 to August 2021 there was a 38 percent increase in new black business owners nationwide. Latino business owners increased 15 percent over the same period, while white entrepreneurs declined 3 percent and Asian entrepreneurs declined 2 percent, according to Fairlie.

This follows his report last year that showed black business ownership had fallen 41 percent in the first month of the pandemic. This initial report earned Fairlie the Bradford-Osborne Research Award for research in support of color entrepreneurs.

Black people have been hit hard economically by the pandemic, which has shut down many industries and led to mass layoffs and job losses. Women more broadly, and black women in particular, were forced into unemployment Close care gaps in their families. Essential workers who were disproportionately blackwere susceptible to the coronavirus.

Those are some of the reasons for the dramatic rise after the initial decline, Fairlie said. Black people, especially black women, left their jobs or were disproportionately laid off and, rather than finding new employment, started anew by becoming business owners. Many also took the opportunity to call to buy Black, believing that the support was there to make a budding company a success.

In the case of Billings, she resigned from her position as head of marketing for an Atlanta tanning salon to start the A+Z Collection with Baker, a digital designer. The urge to get into company ownership was strong. “It was very difficult to quit my job. It’s nice to get that direct deposit every two weeks,” said Billings, wife and mother of one young son. “It’s scary to leave the faith. But I am blessed to have a husband who supports this and allows me to achieve my dream.”

Becoming a business owner was not a dream for sisters Sheylon Haywood and Sandy Reid from Fresno, California. They stumbled upon it after Reid experienced severe digestive issues, nausea and a compromised immune system while pregnant with her second child.

Reid earned a degree in Biological Sciences from the University of California, Riverside; Haywood has a degree in Kinesiology. “Research was our thing,” says Reid, the younger of the two.

Haywood was also a certified mixologist and adept at combining ingredients, so she created a Peruvian ginger drink for her sister. Reid felt better quickly, and it wasn’t long before she suggested making the drinks to help others.

Within months, based on extensive research, they invested their savings and were in business as owners of giningan organic drink with Peruvian ginger, considered the most natural in the world, grown in the Amazon basin, hardly touched by man.

Haywood made four holistic versions of their drink: Citrus Mist, Sunshine Burst, Cherry Delight, and Fresh Zest, an unsweetened vegan option.

“The summer of 2020 has been challenging,” Reid said. “But the social justice movement has inspired us in a number of ways, including taking the leap into business. There is always a risk involved but we believe in our product and we have been empowered to do our own thing.”

Haywood added: “And the pandemic has shown us that there is no point in waiting. Life is too short and we are not promised a day.”

That mindset was similar to that of Erinn Cottman, a veteran teacher and assistant principal, who quit her job and started her during the pandemic company, Erinn Cottman Teacher Development. She trains educators across the country — in person and virtually — on how to create an anti-racist environment that advocates for all students; how to build long-lasting relationships with students, leadership for administrators and other staff; and how to increase impact through collaboration with school partners and many other areas.

Image: Teacher Advisor Erinn Cottman
Teacher Advisor Erinn Cottman.Kelly Raye

She had been thinking about her business for some time. “In my head,” she said. “Because we taught virtually, I finally had time to really put down everything I had thought of on paper.”

In May, after six months of research and developing her curriculum, she bypassed a new job offer to start her business. “It’s a big but gratifying step,” she said.

Throughout her career, she made a conscious choice to educate black children from underserved communities. As a counselor, she continues to reach them through the principals and teachers she directs. She has clients in Atlanta, New Orleans, New Jersey and Texas.

“I probably shouldn’t have been so shocked at how well I’ve been received,” Cottman said, “but I am. A little. Still, it’s gratifying because all of my clients are black principals. Their staff is diverse, but they teach the same types of kids that I have taught. And that’s important to me.”

It was important to Trevor Lawrence that the company he launched this year focus on black empowerment. He worked in the healthcare industry in Oakland, California for decades. But when the state legalized cannabis, he began researching and learning about the myriad health properties of the plant.

So he applied for a license through the city’s program aimed at attracting people of color to the industry. For three years he fulfilled what seemed to be endless requests to finally get his manufacturing and distribution license.

Image: Trevor Lawrence, owner of Kamnisha Wellness.
Trevor Lawrence, owner of Kamnisha Wellness.Kamnisha Wellness

During the pandemic he made his dare, Kamnisha Wellness, his only job. “When you consider how criminalized marijuana was — and still is in too many places — and how black people have been jailed for it, it’s devastating to individuals and communities,” Lawrence said. “Now people are finally learning that the cannabis plant is an amazing healer. And that’s what drives me in the business – educating our community that cannabis is the way to better health. It can heal our community naturally.”

Kamnisha Wellness is a manufacturer of customized topical, organic CBD oils that address pain management, incontinence, and at least 55 other ailments.

“It’s time for our community to understand that there is a viable, safe, plant-based option for us,” Lawrence said. “But there remains a stigma that we must overcome. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry because people recognize its power. That’s where we need to go as a community. That is a driving force for me.”

Enthusiastic about their ventures, the new entrepreneurs understand that the work is intense.

“In many cases,” says Billings, “starting a business, especially an online retail boutique, isn’t all that difficult. But it takes a lot to get it. And this is where the excitement of owning a business meets the reality of making it successful. We believe in buying Black, and we’re counting on everyone’s attitude to help all of these new ventures thrive. We have the purchasing power for it.”

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