Making a Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents: How Black Women Business Owners Are Making It Work
On March 22 I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation with a group of women small business owners at Channel, Live Oak Bank’s new Inclusive Small Business Center in Wilmington, NC. Channel opened its doors in November 2021 as a tremendous resource for small businesses and people trying to start businesses in the Wilmington area. It is both a place to get connected to important resources, including Live Oak’s small business lenders, as well as a quiet workspace to connect with fellow entrepreneurs. We are grateful for the partnership and support ResilNC has received from Channel and Chakema Clinton-Quintana, Live Oak’s VP of Inclusive Small Business, including the invitation to lead the roundtable discussion in celebration of Women’s History Month. In this blog post, I share takeaways from the Wilmington discussion and situate the attendees’ experiences within the broader current social and economic context in our state and nationally.
Around 20 women entrepreneurs showed up at Channel on the warm spring evening to share their stories and network with each other. Nearly all attendees were Black women who either already operate a small business or are in the startup phase. A few of the Channel roundtable participants co-own and operate companies in partnership with their spouses, but most were solopreneurs. Our conversation focused on how the women started their businesses, the ways their businesses were impacted by the pandemic, and what they need to succeed in this moment. Four main themes emerged during the event that align with the data we’ve shared at ResilNC or have found specific to Black women small business owners:
Black women are starting new businesses at higher rates than other groups . All of the business owners in the room had been operating their firms for less than 10 years, with most under four years. Several launched their companies during the pandemic out of necessity or because the uncertainty of the times inspired them to take a chance. As stated in ResilNC’s 2021 report, young businesses are more likely to be diverse owned in NC, with 22% of firms operating for less than four years falling into that category compared to 13% total NC firms. A May 2021 Harvard Business Review article says that only 3% of Black women are running mature businesses more than four years old, which is largely tied to the difficulties they face accessing the capital needed to grow and sustain long-term.
Black women are self-funding their business endeavors. Almost every hand went up when asked if the women had covered their start-up costs out-of-pocket. This is consistent with data that says 61% of Black women self-fund their total start-up capital. In our 2020 report, we shared that the disparities in wealth access to capital mean that Black entrepreneurs start businesses with only $35,000 compared to more than $100,000 for white entrepreneurs. This difference means Black-owned businesses often start in a tenuous financial position all while sending owners into personal debt. The stories that we’ve heard demonstrate common experiences for Black entrepreneurs who are often reticent to ask for money, do not have personal networks that can give significant monetary support, and lack relationships with banks and other potential funders and investors. These experiences are tied to a history of social and economic inequities that result in a lack of trust in financial institutions.
The pandemic has had both positive and negative effects on Black women-owned businesses. Everyone in the room who had been in operation at the start of the pandemic had to pivot in some way due to changes in demand during the height of the pandemic because of shelter-in-place mandates. However, all adjustments were not negative—some were in response to increased demand. For instance, a marketing photographer/ videographer targeted her services to seasoned realtors, which increased her bookings in correlation to the booming housing market. Where there was lower demand, some had to decrease leased space, instead opting for hourly arrangements, or working from home. Others were pushed to find a 9-5 job to keep their businesses afloat until their businesses are able to rebound.
Black women need trusted partners and advisors to take their businesses to the next level. The work that the staff at Channel do to support small businesses is a model for building trusted relationships with business owners. Entrepreneurs get connected with valuable, strategic resources and advice at Channel, including other small business owners who can provide needed services. One of the most special moments was when the women in the space realized that much of the knowledge they were looking for to support their businesses right now existed within other women there. We need more of these relationships, along with affordable, non-extractive capital to help Black women’s businesses flourish.
At Channel, we saw representation from various sectors, including branding and marketing, event planning, cosmetology, media, photography, interior design, food, and clothing retail. Data shows that most Black-owned businesses are in the retail or service sectors, which are typically lower earning industries. In North Carolina, according to pre-pandemic data mentioned in ResilNC’s 2020 report, “although Black businesses accounted for 4.2% of firms, they made up only 1.3% of the business revenue generated in the state.” The lower revenue makes it difficult to employ others, too, as only 2-4% of Black-owned firms have employees. A July 2020 paper from the Center for American Progress states that, “Prior to the pandemic, Black-owned employer firms constituted less than 2% of the more than 5.7 million small businesses with employees. The United States Census data reflects that Black-owned employers are often younger, smaller and less profitable than white-owned firms. This difference is more pronounced for Black women business owners.”
It's been widely shared that Black women are starting businesses at a higher rate than any other group. In fact, 17% of Black women are entrepreneurs compared to 10% of white women and 15% of white men. Black women bet on themselves despite the many challenges that exist. When it comes to access to capital for Black folks who own businesses, systemic racism in financial services means Black small business owners are approved for loans at half the rate of their white counterparts in the traditional banking sector. In the world of venture capital, it’s commonly shared that Black women barely receive any capital at all. I heard on an NPR podcast recently that the number is 0.34% of all venture funding in 2020 with white women receiving a little more than 2%. We need to make sure that more Black business data is consistently disaggregated by gender and other important identity markers that allow us to better understand specific challenges and develop specific solutions such that Black women and other Black people are not just able to start businesses if they choose to, but are also able to sustain them because they have access to the capital and resources they need.
Finally, at ResilNC, we want to have a nuanced conversation about why Black women choose the path of entrepreneurship. In my family and personal circles when Black women are able to make the choice to leave the perceived security of traditional employment, it’s usually because they want to free themselves from work environments that are often unsupportive of their professional growth and harmful to their mental health. In a time where we’re seeing great strides in Black women being promoted to the highest positions, we’re still fighting for our ability to show up in those spaces as our whole selves through equity initiatives and policies like the CROWN Act. The fact that these initiatives are necessary in 2022 means that racial prejudice continues to be a distraction from Black women’s ability to reach their potential in the workplace. Therefore, starting a business for Black women is often more about the personal freedom and agency they create and less about becoming wealthy. So what if we measured the benefits of entrepreneurship based on improved wellness and affirming environments for Black people alongside an improved economic condition? How would we invest in Black businesses if our goals were more expansive?
To make the freedom of entrepreneurship possible for more Black women, we need more capital distributed and controlled by Black women and others who can be strong, trusted partners. We need to make resources and information more easily accessible for all business types. We also need other policy solutions too, like student debt cancellation, expanded childcare, and access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Lastly, we need each other—to share our gifts and talents and to lift each other up in ways only we can. Black women are the queens of making a way out of no way, but they deserve access to all the resources needed to alleviate struggle. Our communities will be better for it.