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After wave of support, Black entrepreneurs are back to business as usual – Tennessean

J. Hackett owns Grind Coffee Co. in Asheville, North Carolina and helps mentor other Black entrepreneurs.

Moziah “Mo” Bridges is only 19 years old, but already he is an experienced entrepreneur. When he was 9, he founded Mo’s Bows. The Memphis-based business sells bow ties, ties, pocket squares and, since the pandemic, sharp masks to match. It employs five people, including Bridges’ mom.

Last summer, the social justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder prompted a nationwide movement to support Black-owned businesses. Bridges, as an African American entrepreneur, did see a bump in his sales. But he knew not to count on it continuing. A year later, his sales are back to where they were before.

“If something is trending, then people are going to do it,” Bridges said. “You had to be prepared and look at the difference between trends and something that’s really going to stay and stick around.”

Moziah "Mo" Bridges, now 19, founded Mo's Bows when he was 11 years old. The Memphis-based business sells colorful ties, bow ties and masks.

The last year and half has been tumultuous. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed inequalities throughout American society. Then the Black Lives Matters movement led many to grapple with how race is intertwined with entrenched problems. 

This encompassed all sectors of commerce including small businesses. Some Black business owners saw a boost in sales as new customers rushed to support them. Now the conversation of the moment has shifted. And entrepreneurs are reflecting on what they gained and what larger changes are needed so Black-owned businesses can thrive.

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Keneisha Malone and Meghan Paige launched their business, Terra Cotta, last October amid the pandemic. Their shop in Memphis’ Binghampton neighborhood sells plants and products from area makers.

Meghan Paige, left, and Keneisha Malone run Terra Cotta in Memphis, Tennessee.

The pair, who both have full-time jobs, had an exhilarating and exhausting first year as shop owners.

“I think a lot of people come in to support Black makers,” Malone said. “But I also think the pandemic was a time when people gravitated towards how therapeutic plants are.”

Malone and Paige, like Bridges of Mo’s Bows, were skeptical that purchases spurred by the social justice protests would lead to lasting customers. Business owners who assume those new sales will continue, they said, might expand too quickly or take on too much inventory.

“I know that I was super grateful. But if the support doesn’t maintain or sustain itself, it’s actually a bit detrimental to the business,” Malone said.

Cleveland Spears III started his Spears Group, a communication and marketing firm in New Orleans, over a decade ago. As companies last summer sought to support Black-owned businesses, he got more calls. He landed a few new clients, and was able to hire more staff. By the start of 2021, those calls had petered out.

Cleveland Spears founded the Spears Group communications firm in New Orleans.

“I think some folks were very genuine and very intentional. And I think some instances were performative,” Spears said. “And even those with the best intentions, the hundreds of years of history and culture would still be there.”

Spears, however, does not dismiss the importance of these moments when more people recognize injustices in American society and try in tangible ways to offer support.

“Progress has always been incremental,” he said. “So the idea that there’s going to be wholesale change in our culture and society is not going to happen.”

Spears believes the biggest impediment for Black entrepreneurs is the lower level of general wealth in the Black community, a direct result of racist practices such as redlining that segregated housing by race and class. Addressing that issue requires systematic change, not just individual goodwill and new customers.

“Banks and institutions need to say, hey, we’re serious about backing Black businesses, so we’re going to have more latitude in our lending requirements,” he said.

When J. Hackett opened his Grind coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina last September, he found the city welcomed him with open arms.

“I think they supported it because we were Black,” he said. “But I think they supported it because we provided something that people wanted.”

J. Hackett stands outside Grind Coffee Co., the coffee shop he owns in Asheville, North Carolina with business partner Gene Ettison.

From the start, Hackett invited other Black entrepreneurs to use his cafe as a pop-up shop. Soon, though, he saw a greater need. He launched Black Wall Street AVL, a mentoring program that aims to help make Asheville a mecca for Black businesses.

The most important lesson he learned was that business people are people first.

“The business grows out of you. The same things that are negatively impacting Black people are negatively impacting Black businesses,” he said.

Hackett holds weekly meetings with the other entrepreneurs. They share business advice. Hackett also directs people to business and personal resources that can help them navigate this difficult time.

“They cannot effectively push their business if their individual and personal needs are not met,” he said.

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