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Black-owned businesses reflect on a year in the spotlight

We spoke to four founders about how they navigated the flood of attention, and what more needs to be done to support Black entrepreneurs.
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Francis Scialabba

6 min read

The murder of George Floyd stirred a critical conversation around race in America. In retail, that led to a push to support Black-owned businesses—from campaigns like The 15 Percent Pledge to accelerator programs, to lists of brands to buy from, and more.

A year later, some entrepreneurs have mixed feelings on the efforts. We spoke to the founders of four Black-owned businesses about how they navigated the flood of attention, and what needs to be done to further support Black entrepreneurs.

The responses below have been lightly edited for clarity.

Sophia Demirtas, founder of Fanm Mon

Sophia Demirtas, founder, Fanm Mon

Courtesy of Fanm Mon

Courtesy of Fanm Mon

Initial reactions: You have an influx of support that's coming out of nowhere and it puts you in a different mindset because you have to deliver. It was a very unique timing for everything to happen, because you literally went from zero to a hundred within weeks.

But if you're going to support us, it has to be with significant change.

Some of the platforms that have reached out to me to carry my line, it made me feel a certain way because obviously I didn't just start my business. I had reached out to them, seeing that my product would be a great fit with their demographic, but I continued to be overlooked until then. So when they circled back to me, it didn't feel genuine.

The impact: Over the past year, we've seen three times to four times our normal revenue between retail and wholesale.

We've had quite a lot of return customers, more than we've had in the past years that we've been in business.

What more can be done: We need more actionable causes to what's being promised. We need to have the actions match with whatever is being presented to the public that's being done or going to be done.

If a big brand reaches out to me to do a collaboration and they're not talking about giving me full respect—let's start with that full respect. As a creative, I can feel confident to fully be myself and share my input on whatever the collaboration is going to be.

No one should do anything for particularly Black creatives as if they're doing us a favor. I feel for the past year people are coming out and saying they're doing this, they're doing that to boost themselves. Do not approach us with less of an offer than you would any other person.

Denise Woodard, founder of Partake Foods

Denise Woodward, founder, Partake Foods

Courtesy of Partake Foods

Courtesy of Partake Foods

Initial reactions: I initially wrestled with some feelings of guilt because our business was in a good place. And then George Floyd was murdered and this overdue conversation began to take place. And we saw all of this inbound [interest]I had never expected: influencers and potential investors and retailers.

As we started to get inbound [interest], I also felt a little slimy because it felt very performative—like we were the same brand selling the same products we were selling the day before, and then someone was murdered and all of a sudden people had an interest in the products.

The business impact: Our revenue grew tenfold in the past year, and it grew 900% from 2019 to 2020.

We've seen a lot of repeat corporate client business from organizations like Google, McKinsey, and Deloitte, and it's not like, “Oh hey, we're reaching out because you're a minority owned brand.” It's, “Okay, we want to share with our employees a delightful snack.”

What more can be done: There's clearly a lot of progress that should still be made. I think oftentimes Black people are over-mentored. There's a lot more action-oriented support that needs to happen to create more accessibility.

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There's often a gap where somebody isn't able to lean on family financial support to quit their jobs to be able to start a venture. So I think programs that take into account circumstances that exist in the Black community, and make accommodations for them so that there is equal access, are what's needed to be able to close the gap. But there's definitely a long way to go.

Kim Etheredge, cofounder of Mixed Chicks

Kim Etheredge, cofounder, Mixed Chicks

Courtesy of Mixed Chicks

Courtesy of Mixed Chicks

Initial reactions: We were thrilled to see many companies and mass retailers speak up about fairness, show outrage when injustices occurred, and display a human side and give a platform for issues of racial injustice. The companies and mass retailers who stood up were very well aware that this could affect their bottom line by taking a stand in the wake of George Floyd's murder.

The business impact: Mixed Chicks was immediately promoted by Ulta Beauty through its Instagram posts and mentions. This drove traffic to our brand from new and old consumers and increased sales.

What more can be done: Perhaps making specific tabs on retailers’ online platforms that identify and promote those of us with MBE [Minority Business Enterprise] certifications or WBENC [Women’s Business Enterprise National Council] certifications. This would be a great start for a consumer who wants to know if they are truly shopping Black- or woman-owned enterprises.

Keenan Beasley, founder of Sunday II Sunday

Keenan Beasley, founder, Sunday II Sunday

Courtesy of Sunday II Sunday

Initial reactions: As we looked at everything that happened, we knew there was going to be a resurgence of attention going toward Black-owned businesses, a new look at systemic racism and things that have plagued the Black community. This was obvious from a social justice standpoint, but also from an economic standpoint.

My fear with that was how long that energy and that momentum would last, and if we could see it all the way through to get to the real change. I think there’ve been a lot of positives where there has been a tremendous amount of attention to initiatives that have been geared at rewriting some of the rules.

This is a historic trend in our country. Again, my concern is when you have these shifts in [response to] these horrific acts that play out, we have to ensure that, as Americans, we don't have such short memories and we see things through. That's the challenge that we're in now.

The business impact: We launched on the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, which was an incredibly historic day: May 31. What that allowed us to benefit from was the increased attention on Black-owned businesses and people's desire to support Black-owned companies. We received a ton of organic reach—hundreds of millions of impressions, which is incredible for a startup. I think since then that momentum allowed us to carry through and get interest from retailers even prior to The 15 Percent Pledge announcement.

We exceeded our [first-year] goals by 25%.

What more can be done: I look at things like payment terms with our vendors to support the ability to get loans. Right now we know there's another issue within Black media and the support that they're having, and there've been numerous people like Diddy and Revolt that are having this conversation.

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.