Latashia Perry is eager to get back to business.
Like other black business owners, Perry, of Flint, is trying to find solid ground as the state slowly reopens local economies. Meanwhile, protests for racial equality erupt around the world, with many people looking for ways they can get involved.
In 2015, Perry authored the book “Hair Like Mine.” Inspired by her daughter, the book tells the journey of a little black girl trying to find someone who looks like her.
The book led Perry to create Kids Like Mine, a business dedicated to representing black children in products like books, toys and fashion.
Today, Perry is preparing to launch her Kids Like Mine bus. Perry plans on driving a bus into Flint neighborhoods and reading the books she has authored to children. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the bus debut to the fall, however.
Supporting black-owned businesses like Perry’s has never been more crucial, according to officials. In April, during the coronavirus stay at home orders that effectively shut down the economy, the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce established the Restart Flint and Genesee Grant program with several community partners. Of the $562,500 in available funding for small businesses, more than half is earmarked specifically for black-owned businesses.
Part of that advocacy is creating programs directed at helping black-owned businesses. Providing grants to small businesses is important but COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the black community, Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce CEO Tim Herman pointed out.
“It’s important that our region recognizes this and takes action,” Herman said. “We must show that the community cares and is doing what is possible to assist them.”
Black-owned businesses are struggling across the state
Black-owned businesses are struggling all across Michigan, but are sensing a new era of hope.
In Grand Rapids, Jessica Ann Tyson, owner of Candied Yams, has seen a new wave of support following the protests. Tyson opened her restaurant in 2016.
“There are people who look like me who are going to support our business and people who don’t look like me want to support because they realize that just maybe they haven’t supported as much as they could have,” Tyson said.
For other black business owners, like Tammie Mathis of Flint and Rochelle Mann of Saginaw, the burden is felt in other ways. Mathis owns a catering business and Tee’s Plentiful Salads. The pandemic canceled the events she was contracted to cater, leaving her to refund several distributors.
“It was really hard and it took a toll,” Mathis said.
Mann owns MannMade Productions and is the creative director for the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration. The marketing expert had to refund several contracts and restructure her operations.
The pandemic has taken three months of revenue away from small businesses. That financial stress is especially felt by minority businesses currently reopening, according to Terry Pruitt, president of the Saginaw NAACP chapter.
Minority businesses were operating with limited financial resources and cash flow before the pandemic, Pruitt said.
“It’s extremely difficult for business owners because the profit margins are very narrow now,” Pruitt said. “A lot of the business owners I know understand the difficulties ahead and some of them just aren’t going to make it.”
But Pruitt believes the recent death of George Floyd, a black man killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police, could be a turning point for black business owners
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Black business owners have always faced barriers
At the age of 25, Pruitt was heading the city of Saginaw’s Model Cities Program. The program was developed in the late 1960s, a time, Pruitt says, when there were “tremendous riots and disturbances across the country.”
“It was the height of the civil rights movement,” Pruitt said. “The death of Dr. King triggered a lot of it. You had a tremendous amount of turmoil and issues across the country for African Americans.”
The Model Cities Program was created to address the economic issues black people living in urban communities faced, according to Pruitt.
“It was the first time the federal government actually put resources into communities,” Pruitt said.
Federal funding was focused on the most socioeconomically distressed areas. In Saginaw, that was in the city’s northeast communities. At the height of the program, Pruitt said 500 people were employed, housing assistance was provided for 100 homeowners and 15 to 20 businesses were started.
The program ended in 1974, when President Nixon’s administration created the Community Development Block Grant program, which expanded community-wide funding. Most major urban cities in the nation receive CDBG funding, according to Pruitt.
While federal funding slowly began building black communities, resources for black entrepreneurs were still very limited.
Traditionally, to start a business a person borrows money from a financial institution. This can be a bank or a credit union. Potential borrowers must go through many hoops to prove their ability to repay business loans.
“This can be extremely difficult when you don’t have a lot of assets and you only have an idea,” Pruitt said.
Financial institutions are looking for reports and statements that many minority entrepreneurs can’t produce because of a lack in local technical resources, according to Pruitt.
“It can be extremely difficult to convince investors or banks to loan you money when you have very little experience in business,” Pruitt said. “Those in power who control these decisions haven’t helped educate minorities on sorting through requirements.”
Definitive policy changes and black leadership at financial institutions are the only way of breaking these barriers down, according to Pruitt.
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Distributing wealth in the community
Community chambers of commerce and local economic development corporations must help minority business owners gain the expertise to sort through the technicalities of starting a business, according to Pruitt.
“The chambers must be champions of small and minority businesses. This needs to be an ongoing effort and commitment,” Pruitt said.
Grant funding has helped Mathis’ salad business, located at the Flint Farmers’ Market, stay open. Leaders at the market figured out ways to keep vendors operating while adhering to the state’s shutdown, according to Mathis.
The 29-year-old chef is slowly reopening the stand after setting up Plexiglass, sanitation stations and loading up on personal protective equipment.
Tyson also applied for federal and local grants during the pandemic. Her business had to cut its operations in half. She was awarded a grant through the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. The chamber made it “very easy” to navigate the application process, according to Tyson.
Owner Tee Mathis poses for a photo at her counter at Tee’s Plentiful Salads on June 8, 2020 at the Flint Farmers’ Market in downtown Flint. (Jake May | MLive.com)Jake May | Mlive.com
‘There is an opportunity that we shouldn’t allow to get past us’
The pandemic has impacted Mann positively and negatively. Though Mann had to refund contracts for several companies, she’s had time to help small black-owned businesses with small marketing budgets.
“Being at home, I am able to have more candid conversations with people seeking my consulting,” Mann said. “I’m working on surprises for smaller businesses and churches who may not have the greatest marketing budgets.”
Mann hopes that in times of crisis and social injustice, “people take time to quiet themselves, listen and operate as problem solvers.”
“Don’t add to the problem, whether it’s in your stance or within your solution,” Mann said.
People worldwide are currently protesting racial injustice in America. The protests, sparked by Floyd’s death, provide an opportunity to address policy issues hindering the economic success of black communities, according to Pruitt.
“Minority business owners need to speak up very loudly about the support and assistance they need,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt believes leadership at financial institutions must reflect minority communities. He said it is time white corporate America understands the position black business owners are in and go the extra mile for them.
“We need leadership that dedicates specific resources and consultants to address issues between minority businesses and lenders,” Pruitt said. “Providing a solid economic environment for minority businesses is a major step in the right direction of solving other issues and problems in the community.”
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