‘Black Lives Matter helped start a conversation…'

In seven years, Black Lives Matter has gone from a hashtag to a global rallying cry. We checked in with people advocating for change at the grassroots level, and those at bigger businesses, to consider what this reckoning on race means to them.
black business owners hero
Marie Mitchell and Joseph Pilgrim, founders of Island Social Club

‘For first- or second-generation Caribbean immigrants, we investigate our culture through food. But Caribbean food is being homogenised – jerk, for example, is a complex flavour that reveals the history of the islands. We have to educate our consumers about certain dishes, or people approach us with unrealistic expectations. On one hand, you want to be successful for your community, but you also have to be slightly mainstream. Otherwise your rent costs and staff costs will kill you.

‘Finding space in the first place is very much about who you know. If you don’t have lineage in the industry, you barely come across empty retail spaces. Without contacts, we have to work 10 times as hard to get to the same end goal. Little did we know at the beginning that press was a similar issue – the media will often see a white, male chef as worthy of attention, even if he is exploring “ethnic” cuisines.

‘The restaurant industry, as a whole, is built on exploitation. People are working horrific hours for little pay. And how often do we see black owners, managers, sommeliers and head chefs? We need representation across all levels of the food sector.

‘The Black Lives Matter movement is brilliant and necessary for cultural change. We certainly saw a spike in interest, and any black-owned business was happy with the extra exposure. But there was also a pressure on these businesses to become pillars for the whole movement. Engaging with us is a good start. But it is only a small part of the action.’

Click here to learn more about Island Social Club.

Abena Boamah-Acheampong, founder of Hanahana Beauty

‘The beauty and wellness industry whitewashes ingredients, including shea. For years, shea butter has been used and capitalised in cosmetics in tiny amounts. The industry doesn’t acknowledge where, how and why it is made by black women.

‘When I started, most of my barriers were to do with access to capital and lack of beauty industry knowledge. I was being asked for free samples and getting large wholesale orders without payment and, at the same time, being told that I had to spend money to reach more people. As a teacher and master’s student while growing Hanahana Beauty, the understanding that you need capital to make capital made me feel like it was almost impossible to scale.

‘But as we did scale and grow, I was able to gain mentors within the beauty industry. Opportunities like the Cocokind Grant, Clean Beauty School, and the Glossier Grant gave me mentors like Amy Liu of Tower 28 and Priscilla Tsai of Cocokind. Grants like these redistribute access and capital, while letting business owners retain ownership of the brand, and receive mentorship and insider industry know-how.’

Click here to learn more about Hanahana Beauty.

Phyllis Taylor, creative director of Sika Designs

‘We’ve been doing this since 2004, and we’ve always talked about where our products are made, to promote good, made-in-Africa garments. Earlier this year, our Instagram following went from 13,000 to 73,000 – we got 40,000 of those in just one day. This kind of exposure has been long overdue. We saw a huge uptake in sales in the summer, and even had to extend our manufacture and delivery lead time to avoid anybody being overwhelmed by the sudden rise in demand.

‘Press has always been a tricky hump to overcome in fashion: if you’re not from a certain fashion school, or with the in-crowd, access is limited. I was told that I would need to go out and network for it, but how can I do that when I’ve got a business to run? I’ve got accounts, emails, staff. It’s sad to put yourself in that position.

‘To aspiring black fashion designers, I would say that it is vital to stay true to your message and vision, negotiate and ask for payment upfront, and really think about the opportunities you are being offered. Everything will seem like a “great opportunity” until you realise you’ve spent more on it than you’ve earned through it.’

Click here to learn more about Sika Designs.

Oliver Kent-Braham, co-founder of Marshmallow

‘In tech, one of the big barriers has always been funding, but luckily we had a tech network to lean on. Insurance, on the other hand, remains an old boys’ club. They have their gatekeepers. But once we brought an industry veteran onto our team, that gave us a leg up.

‘The venture capital world is elitist, often working on a “warm introduction” model. They are still trying to find the best by their definition, which is people who go to great universities, speak well and have worked in investment banking. At first I didn’t question it much – I just thought that was the way it was. Eventually, though, we saw how that translates into a total lack of black business owners and role models, because they aren’t going to Oxford and are generally from poorer areas of the country.

‘But starting a company in the first place is elitist, so the intervention needs to come much earlier on. When you are born into poverty – as 46% of black children in the UK are – you just can’t take the same risks as someone from a wealthier background. You can’t rely on angels around you to fund your prototype. If I were to set up a fund, I’d focus on giving opportunities to founders from less wealthy backgrounds, who are equally as capable but not the right “fit” for today’s venture capital world.’

Click here to learn more about Marshmallow.

Jitu Maat, store manager at Hardware 2.0

‘A lot of people in big cities have a renters’ mentality, and they don’t feel an attachment to their community. We have an owners’ mentality, even with the slight exodus that is happening in New York City at the moment. It’s time to strengthen those bonds.

‘My father co-owned the store with a woman who was a grassroots organiser and an activist in the neighbourhood. She was the heart and soul of the store, as if she was everyone’s godmother. I’ve tried to emulate that level of care – if you come to buy something for a project you are working on, I want to know how that project is going. I’ll even hold your keys for you if you’re going out of town.

‘Black Lives Matter helped start a conversation about keeping money circulating in minority-run businesses. People started to look at the socioeconomic impact of their spending, and shopping became a political statement. There was strength in knowing that where you shop could actually better someone’s life. We got people coming into the store and asking if we were black-owned. Sure, we play a lot of soul music and have pictures up of historically important black women, but there was no way of knowing who the owner was unless I walked around with a tag on.

‘Unfortunately, this focus on black-owned businesses will probably end up being another fad. Institutions need to come in now and strengthen the connections and conversations before it’s eclipsed by another popular social movement.’

Click here to learn more about Hardware 2.0.

This article was first published in Courier issue 38, December/January 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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