Supporting Black-Owned Businesses Is Lifelong Work — Here Are 4 Ways to Keep It Up
The logic goes that business isn’t supposed to be personal — the best performers get the best results. In practice, however, that is far from true. According to a December 2020 report from the Brookings Institute, only 2.2 percent of businesses in the United States are Black-owned, which is all the more sobering when you consider that Black people account for 14.2 percent of the U.S. population. And while there are many Black-owned businesses that meet a variety of needs, they rarely get the promotion and backing they deserve.
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During the long-overdue reckoning with anti-Black racism that took the place last June, many people highlighted the need for customers of all backgrounds to actively and enthusiastically support Black-owned businesses. But doing so is lifelong work — you can’t buy one book from one Black-owned bookstore and consider your job done. As Traci Thomas, the founder and host of The Stacks podcast, previously told Apartment Therapy, “If you’re trying to do the work to be anti-racist and help to restructure the racism that is the foundation of America, you have to do the reading too. You have to do the work part of it too.”
What does the work look like now? Apartment Therapy talked to six Black business owners about the growth and transformation they’ve seen throughout their careers and especially in the past year, as well as how customers can keep the momentum and support going in a tangible and meaningful way.
Support Black business owners early on in their journey.
All business ventures require a certain amount of risk-taking, but Black business owners must often overcome structural and outsized challenges to make an impact. Black-owned businesses rarely get the support that businesses owned by non-Black people do, the Brookings Institution pointed out, and that lack of investment speaks to the long history of anti-Black racism in the U.S. It’s important to consider Black business owners’ ideas with as much honor and validity as you would any business venture from a person of another racial background, and to support their products and companies early and enthusiastically.
“We weren’t sure we had an item we could sell as a product, much less a business,” Mapate Diop, the co-founder of Nigerian streetwear company DIOP, told Apartment Therapy. The idea for the Detroit, Michigan-based company was hatched after a friend asked Diop about the West African fabric he was wearing. “After six months of making prototypes, we launched a crowdfunding campaign after the recommendation of a friend.” It was thanks to the campaign that he was able to raise the money to eventually launch a collection in September 2018. The company now sells face masks, tees, shorts, bandanas, and other accessories — and much of that may not have been possible without the help of friends and strangers on the internet who believed in the company’s vision.
Another example is Partake Foods, an allergy-friendly food company whose products can be found in Target, Whole Foods, and more. The company’s founder and CEO Denise Woodard remembered the fight it took to get the company off the ground: “I worked long hours and burned through personal savings to make my dream a reality, from selling cookies store-by-store (out of my car!) and clearing out my 401(k) to selling my engagement ring,” she told Apartment Therapy about Partake’s early days.
”Though Partake has grown significantly since our seed round, getting to that point was not easy,” she said. “Prior to that, a Black woman hadn’t raised more than $1 million publicly for a packaged food company. Breaking that glass ceiling required that I dig deep as I went through 86 ‘nos’ before hearing ‘yes.’”
There are many Black business owners who are building their companies’ foundations and need early support and resources. Through spreading the word about new products or companies you love or contributing to funding yourself, you can ensure that the world does not lose amazing products just because companies with tons of potential ran out of funding before their wares took off.
Support Black-owned businesses when their owners and teams highlight their cultural background…
Historically, Black business owners have been pressured by the mainstream to “code switch” when talking to potential non-Black investors, or to the general public as they expand their brand. Black businesspeople are often expected to adjust their self-expression to fit into a strict standard professionalism that centers white norms. Thankfully, the new Black business renaissance is upending that anti-Black expectation.
When founder Joshua Esnard launched The Cut Buddy with a shaping tool meant to help anyone achieve a great beard or haircut, he knew that people of all races and ethnicities would be able to use it at home. Even so, the fact that Black people gravitated to his product early on helped define it as being a “Black product.” And the new cultural zeitgeist has inspired Esnard to start expressing aspects of his culture within his products.
“I never intentionally marketed the business as Black-owned — I was afraid because five years ago, labeling your company as such guaranteed that your company wasn’t going to succeed,” he told Apartment Therapy. “But now I’m excited! Nowadays there is a new type of freedom that allows for me to share my Caribbean language and heritage openly and have that be an asset.”
Supporting this authenticity is important, and it’s crucial to examine any internalized biases about “respectability” that might come up when you see companies showcase their cultural background.
… But be careful not to pigeonhole Black-owned businesses as you support them.
Black business owners are excited to share and celebrate their cultural roots, and they are often just as thrilled to serve people from a variety of backgrounds. A good product is a good product, and every customer can strive to share how Black businesses do good business for all.
“I want to provide products for women of color because we have been ignored for so long, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” The Lip Bar founder Melissa Butler told Apartment Therapy. She was inspired to launch the makeup company to fill a need she had for herself, but she quickly expanded the company beyond that. “True, The Lip Bar is Black-owned and we do make products for Black women, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that defines us,” she says, noting that the current line of products provide 26 different skin tone shades, which is still on the higher end of many company’s ranges.
“There isn’t a limit to our potential because everyone, no matter their color, can identify with wanting to feel beautiful in their own skin, which I think we’ve proven as the brand has evolved,” Butler added.
For Esusu co-founder Abbey Wemimo, it was crucial to recognize that the product he and cofounder Samir Goel were building would both speak to a need many Black renters face, and potentially change the credit market for everyone. The company, which Wemimo and Goel founded in 2017, provides options to help renters build credit, and therefore wealth and eventual homeownership. This matters because homeownership is the most effective wealth building tool in the U.S., and red-lining, racist appraisals, and other forms of racial bias have often kept Black people from owning or keeping homes, and therefore building generational wealth.
“We have a lot of work to do and it’s important to us to support a legacy of wealth-building especially amongst marginalized groups,” Wemimo said about the persistent and significant gap in homeownership rates between white and Black people in the United States. “[But] the legacy that we want to leave behind is to give people regardless of their background, the color of their skin, where they grew up financial access in this country. Credit scores have traditionally created an incomplete picture of payments, not taking into consideration significant monthly payments like rent. Esusu exists to change that and give credit where credit is due.”
Make sure your support of Black-owned businesses is intersectional, and includes Black women and LGBTQ+ people.
While the number of Black female business owners has grown exponentially in the past 10 years, Black women face unique challenges when they start their own companies. As you take inventory of the number of Black-owned businesses you’re currently supporting, be sure to check how many of those businesses are owned by Black women and LGBTQ+ people — and adjust your support accordingly if you can do better.
Plenty of Black-owned businesses are built by speaking to the needs of multiple identities without compromising on values or relying on surface marketing tactics. “Having the opportunity to build a brand as a Black human that focuses on vaginal empowerment and wellness is just a gift in and of itself,” The Honey Pot founder Bea Dixon told Apartment Therapy. The brand’s success at retailers like Target and Urban Outfitters is just one example of the gains Black-owned businesses have made in recent years. “Historically, this category is owned by white men who are dictating how and what we put into our vaginas, and to be able to challenge that model with better-for-you products is an effort I do not take lightly,” Dixon says.
The experiences Black business leaders have had in their own lives makes them especially equipped to uplift people of various intersections through their products and offerings. And as you continue to support Black businesses in your day-to-day life, it’s important to look at it as an opportunity to support those making the world a more thoughtful, inclusive place.
Supporting Black-owned businesses, Dixon said, “not only elevates humans from a financial perspective but also enriches the fabric of our consumption habits. Simply put, it gives us more cool shit to love. It allows for more penetration across a ton of verticals and emboldens new brand identities which I think is the impetus for renaissance and global trends to evolve.”