In 2019, photographer Tinnetta Bell and I embarked on a year-long photojournalism project called Self Made, which documents nine women who own small businesses in Newark’s South and West Wards.
As editor, I wanted to localize a national trend. For more than a decade, Black women had been the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the nation, despite the obstacles they faced. From 2014 to 2019, firms owned by Black women grew at a rate of 50%, according to the American Express 2019 State of Women-Owned Business Report.
Americans love the image of small-business owners, even as they flock to big-box stores and shop online. Main Street’s mom and pop shops symbolize hard work, independence and community. But Black women are rarely presented as the face of small-business owners — despite their exponential demographic growth. That’s especially true if they’re located in struggling and often stigmatized communities like Newark’s South and West wards. Self Made was created to shine a light on them.
Before and during the pandemic
We began interviews and photo shoots nine months before COVID-19 struck in March. By the time we published in late August, the world was transformed. Most of the women found ways to adapt. Shidae Jones, owner of CB Dreamhouse Boutique, known for its custom-made faux fur boots, added masks to her inventory. Shikhana Muhammad, who owns Salaam Ice Cream Parlor, installed a walk-up window so patrons could be served outside. Charmaine Vann Seagraves reduced bookings at her beauty salon, Charmaine Has Hands 4 Hair, to comply with reduced-capacity regulations. Rashena Burroughs, owner of the Blueberry Café Juice Bar and Vegan Grille, added temperature checks for people attending events booked for the restaurant’s backyard patio.
Others didn’t make it. Philomina Kisi, a Ghanian immigrant who months before had finally realized her dream of opening a brick-and-mortar shop, closed the tiny storefront where she sold African clothing. Isabel Merced, who ran Party Events, a business founded by her grandmother, Carlotta Hall, didn’t return calls after COVID-19 struck, so I’m not sure if the business stayed afloat. But the impact must have been severe. Merced managed The Mansion rental hall, where Newarkers celebrated milestone occasions like baby showers, graduation parties and repasts.
I asked Natasha Rogers, Chief Operations Officer of the City of Newark and former Goldman Sachs investment banker, how the public and private sectors can support Black women business owners during the pandemic. In many ways, the answer is the same as before.
Less access to loans, even for PPP
Capital is key, especially during hard times, Rogers said. Many business owners who obtained federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds already had bank loans. But Black entrepreneurs are twice as likely as whites to be denied loans, according to the Federal Reserve. In a study by the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which sent sets of Black and white borrowers to 17 banks for PPP money, white subjects overwhelmingly received better treatment, including credit-line offers and encouragement to apply for the PPP program. Black women business owners fared the worst.
Many don’t bother to seek loans at all, even when the economy is healthy. Nearly all the women featured in Self Made used their own funds to start up and relied on family members as staff. Vann Seagraves tapped into her husband’s annuity. “I didn’t want to owe anyone anything,’’ she explained. Muhammad’s family pooled resources. “We didn’t get any type of assistance,’’ she said. “We wanted to be self-sufficient and not depend on banks.”
Rogers describes how a lack of financing can prevent Black-owned businesses from finding long-term success. “If you’re a Black woman with your own business, you probably bootstrapped it, took out personal loans or tapped into a 401(k). If you do well and attract customers, costs go up, expenditures go up, and you can’t pay employees. Services underpace demand because you don’t have the resources to grow. When there is a lag in economic recovery, some people can’t make it through if they don’t have traditional lines of capital.’’
Going outside traditional banking system
In Newark, one solution is the Forty Acres and A Mule fund (FAM), which seeks to raise $100 million in capital for the city’s Black and Latinx business owners. Its goal is to level a playing field skewed by systemic racism.
They also know that Black women business owners are worth the investment. “Business is about relationships and trust. If I can trust you, I want to do business with you,’’ says Rogers. “With Black women and their consumers, there is a reliance, an appreciation, of working with someone who looks like you. We take pride in ownership. We want to see that company successful. It creates an open door.’’
Ripple effect in communities
When these businesses thrive, it has a ripple effect, says Rogers. “People tend to build businesses in the community they live in. They employ people from their community. The business generates income to employees, circulates within a family and a neighborhood.’’
When they don’t survive, it has a ripple effect, too.
Rogers cites a CitiBank study released last year which quantified the cost of racial inequality. It estimated that over 20 years, the lack of lending to Black entrepreneurs amounted to a loss of 6.1 million jobs and drained $13 trillion from U.S. gross domestic product.
“When we have a Black and brown business problem, it affects everyone,’’ says Rogers. “If we don’t take deliberate action, it will take us all years to bounce back.’’
The Self Made project can be found at www.selfmadenewark.com. You can purchase the print publication here. All proceeds from sales benefit SHE Wins Inc., which helps Newark girls develop their potential and become activists and community advocates.