As a Black entrepreneur and nonprofit founder, Aaron Jordan has submitted grant proposals and pitched to investors before. And he’s experienced the feeling that comes when it is clear to him that those efforts aren’t taken seriously. But, that’s not what happened when he presented his latest idea, a co-working space focused on Black-owned businesses, to Tawana Bain, a Black woman and the founder of the economic diversity nonprofit GEDDI.
She has become a mentor to Jordan and lets him operate The Black Complex out of her business, Encore on Fourth. A $50,000 investment from entrepreneur Gill Holland followed. But, without Bain’s buy-in, The Black Complex would have been just another business proposal by a Black entrepreneur, Jordan said.
“I still have the same vision. I’m still the same person; She’s just giving me the pieces to put together, like, ‘OK, you need to do this; you need to do that,’” Jordan said. “Imagine if Black people all over the place had those types of resources.”
Now, Jordan hopes to help other Black business owners obtain those resources with The Black Complex by providing its members with business training, mentorships and networking with other members and business partners from Louisville and beyond.
Black-owned businesses need the help.Only 2.2% of businesses in the United States with employees are Black-owned, according to the U.S. Census, although that percentage has grown since 2002. They are denied loans at higher rates than white-owned businesses and, when they do receive a loan, they’re twice as likely to receive less than what they asked for, according to a survey from the Small Business Administration. Black business owners in Louisville whom LEO spoke with saw other challenges to fostering new ones, such as a lack of business education opportunities, mentors and investment.
This has created extra challenges for many Black-owned businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses with existing lender relationships were more likely to get help from the federal Payroll Protection Program quickly, according to the Center for Responsible Lending — a benchmark that Black-owned businesses are less likely to meet. More Black businesses, 41%, shut down at least temporarily from February to April because of COVID than ventures owned by any other race, according to the University of California, Santa Cruz.
But, in 2020 there has been another factor at work impacting Black businesses: the racial justice movement.
Tanika Bryant created Buy Black Lou in 2019, a directory and Facebook group to discover Black-owned businesses in Louisville. After the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited quests for racial equity across the nation, Bryant’s app received its highest number of monthly users — 21,000 — in June.
“While we were already trending in the Black community, the civil unrest in Louisville and the racist ideologies supported in a local restaurant promo group on FB contributed to many non Black community members reaching out to us asking if they could join in support,” she said. “I think with a spotlight finally being put on the many injustices and neglect in the Black community, many non racists were ready to step up and put their money, time and resources where their mouths are.”
This support does more than just help out a few business owners, according to Bryant.
“When Black businesses flourish, so do their communities,” Bryant said. “Black businesses foster job creation. We are more likely to hire unemployable and Black community members. Black business owners invest in the communities they are in. It celebrates culture and diversity. It brings hope and pride of ownership to Black families and it allows Black youth to see successful Black people in their community. It also helps Black families to create generational wealth.”
Still, Bryant said that Louisville’s major employers and organizations need to do more to help local Black businesses. Her call is for them to “unclench their fists” and to invest in Buy Black Lou, her nonprofit the Black Business Association, and other Black-led organizations that are actively “doing the work.”
There are other organizations and projects in Louisville supporting Black-owned businesses. The Noir Black Chamber of Commerce provides its members with business education, mentors, networking events and “corporate and political connections.” As a registered Community Development Entity, the Chamber can also help large, economic development projects in low-income areas receive tax credits . GEDDI, started this year, has already developed several new programs in addition The Black Complex, including The Collective, a business accelerator for Black-led event organizers, and Just Boss Up, a business certification course. Pocket Change is another venture, by Change Today Change Tomorrow, which provides a Butchertown storefront space for Black businesses.
LEO talked to four business owners in Louisville about their successes and the challenges to running a Black-owned business.
GARDEN GIRL FOODS
Whitney Powers comes from a line of Black business owners. Her great-grandparents sold vegetables and preserved jars of food from a stand, her great uncles own a construction business, and her mom has run an event planning enterprise for 21 years.
Powers started out helping with her mom’s business, Penelope Party, and has since become a co-owner. And this year, at the age of 33, she created a business all her own: Garden Girl Foods.
When COVID-19 halted Penelope Party’s work, Powers decided to start a garden. She claimed a spot in Germantown’s community plot and soon found herself with too many vegetables for her and her husband to eat on their own. Powers decided to start canning them, using her great-grandmother’s recipes. By June, Powers had sold her first jar, and by October, she had a permanent stall at the Logan Street Market, selling her preserves but also soups and baked goods.
Powers attributes this swift success to her locally-grown, handmade product; her cute setup at the market; and a recent surge in support for Black-owned business.
To Powers, being a Black business owner means she can break the cycle of poverty. It’s something that’s been present in her own family, even though she comes from an entrepreneurial unit.
“For me, it’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, buy my stuff because I’m Black, and it’s so much better.’ It’s more about: As a Black person, I had less opportunities from the beginning, and so I had to scratch and claw my way through everything, and every single thing I’ve gone through in life has gotten me to this business,” she said. “So, people see Garden Girl, and they see the finished project. They see success, and they see beauty. But when I was a restaurant manager for 10 years as a GM working 90 hours a week, underpaid, no one’s seen that. So, to be able to take all of my past experiences and do something for myself and be successful as a Black business owner, again, it means healing poverty for my family and anybody that wants to join my team actually.”
Powers did walk into owning Garden Girl Foods with at least one advantage: Because of her business experience, she knew how to scale up when her supply of vegetables started depleting. Powers was quick to find organic farmers in and around the city to buy more product from. And, she listened to her customers to find out what else they wanted. Then, she met that need.
If Powers didn’t have that knowledge — as well as her perseverance — she said she probably would have given up Garden Girl Foods after running out of supplies. And, a lack of knowledge to begin a business is one of the biggest challenges facing other Black-owned businesses, she said.
“We,” Powers began, referring to Black entrepreneurs in general, “don’t have our aunts or our uncles or our grandparents or our parents to look at and to say, ‘Hey, this is how you start your business credit,’ or to say, ‘Hey, this is how you scale,’ or to say ‘Hey, you have that great idea? This is how you can take $100 and run with it.’ We don’t have people who have already done it in our ear or right in our corner to help us along our way. So we have to scratch, and we have to find people and we have to find each other.”
BOWENS TAX & BOOKKEEPING SOLUTIONS
Timalyn Bowens, 31, grew up in a family that told her she could be anything. So, owning her own business was a goal that didn’t seem out of reach when she left her hometown of Evansville, Indiana, to study accounting at Bellarmine University.
Bowens got distracted by making money right away at an “amazing” internship at Crowe Horwath. Then, she transitioned to contract work while she took care of her and her husband’s infant daughter. But, three years after graduating, she was ready. Bowens opened her bookkeeping and tax advising and preparation business in 2016.
As time has gone on, and Bowens has joined Buy Black Lou, she’s realized how lucky she was to have an encouraging family and the college experience.
“I just didn’t realize I was blessed with so many resources and connections,” she said. “Like I could probably reach out to a classmate or another alumni for anything I ever need. Whereas other people don’t have the same access to that or know who they want to talk to.”
In some ways, Bowens has become that resource for other members of Buy Black Lou. She shares informational blog posts and gives business advice that she didn’t even realize would be needed, like how to set up an LLC.
“I was coming in and thinking that people knew the information that I had,” Bowens said. “Tanika and other people were like, no you need to break it down a little bit more because the people in these groups, they can definitely sell, they can raise the money, but it’s after that.”
Bowens has also been surprised to learn since starting her own business how aspirational she can be for others.
“I have had other people tell me that they are pursuing this because they have seen me do it,” she said. “I have had people reach out and tell me, they’re not in the accounting field, but after talking to me they were inspired to go out and pursue their own thing.”
As the operator of a Black-owned accounting firm, Bowens also believes she serves a purpose for her Black customers.
“The way I explain things as if you don’t know anything makes people feel more comfortable,” she said. “Because, like I said, I know there’s a tax education gap there. So, we don’t have as many legacy businesses and that type of thing. So, I get to come in and bridge that gap.”
Erica Hector has a surplus of entrepreneurial spirit, she said. But business knowledge? “No,” she admitted.
Hector, 34, is an actress by passion (and schooling) and is currently working toward a master’s degree in marketing and public relations. While taking various jobs in the service industry, she started a side clothing business called Tomboy Empress in 2015. And, in 2019, she paused that dream to take over State Donuts in The East End after the owner died. She renamed the business Stacey’s Donuts to honor her former boss and friend, Stacey Trieu.
The business, under her leadership, has received an enthusiastic response on the Buy Black Lou and Louisville Takeout Facebook groups as the only Black-owned donut shop in Louisville. She’s kept the donut recipe the same and added different toppings. But, Hector said, she’s struggling under the strain of the pandemic and her own lack of business know-how.
“I’m not business savvy,” she said. “I’m just, you know — I want to be business savvy. I love the entrepreneurial spirit. I love the idea of financial freedom. I love the idea of being able to give back to my community and help rebuild in my community… The best attribute that I bring to this business is customer service and marketing. And the rest of it, I need help.”
The pandemic, meanwhile, has slowed traffic at her shop. Now, her storefront is open only Friday and Saturday, with delivery on Tuesday through Thursday. It used to be open to walk-ins every day except for Sunday. As a result, she’s had to cut hours for three employees. A few more decided to leave their jobs voluntarily.
On top of that, Hector has struggled to get one of the forgivable, low-interest loans that the federal government offered businesses during the pandemic under the Payroll Protection Program. The problem, according to Hector, is that State Donuts is still registered to the store’s address. Recently, though, she received $25,000, because a customer nominated her for — and she received — an award from Discover for their Eat it Forward program. The financial services company is giving out money to Black-owned restaurants as a part of its “commitment to fighting systemic racism and injustice and driving change to create a diverse, inclusive and equitable place for people to work and live.”
Hector has had people reach out to her because of her involvement with Buy Black Lou to help her with business advice. But, all of their talk about supply and demand, profits and loans sounded like a foreign language to her. (Learning is already complicated for Hector because she has ADHD.) Since then, she’s done some of her own research and reached out to other, retired business owners. But, Hector said she still needs more help to keep her business running: a strategic mentor, she said, or a partner, as long as they’re interested in helping her expand Stacey’s Donuts into something more than it is already. Hector’s vision for the shop is a full-fledged cafe with a traveling donut truck.
Being a successful business owner benefits Hector’s community, she said.
“It’s very important, especially in today’s society, other Black people and Black women in general, we’re being overlooked,” she said. “Like, just for maybe loans or scholarships or golden opportunities, or internships and things like that. And we’ve always had the will to actually want to work and want to be something great. We’ve just never had the resources and the opportunity.”
JW CUTS LAWN & LANDSCAPING
Jason Whiting, 45, started manicuring lawns — mowing, weed eating and leaf blowing — in 1994.
He got his equipment from a friend. The push mower was missing a wheel and the other tools weren’t gas powered, so he’d often have to snake an extension cord through his customers’ garages to connect to an outlet.
Over the years, Whiting has taken jobs bartending and driving trucks. But as he’s gotten better equipment, picked up more clients and expanded his services, he’s been able to grow his side hustle into a full-time business.
“I like bartending — it was cool. Driving trucks is cool,” he said. “But it’s something about owning your own business in lawn and landscaping. When you work for yourself, you feel a certain kind of productivity when you do it. Sometimes when you work for other people, you just kind of, you feel like you’re just kind of walking the trail which they laid for you. And regardless of how profitable the country that you work for is, you’re still just a digit within the whole parameters of everything. So working for yourself, you kind of see yourself growing or see where you make the mistakes.”
He gravitated toward a landscaping business because there’s a creative aspect to it.
“It’s almost like a blank canvas to an artist,” he said. “It’s instant gratification. You see what the yard looked like when you got here. You see what it is when you leave.”
Recently, his landscaping business has grown by 15% to 20% with the help of Buy Black Lou. Before, he paid Home Adviser to be listed on its website and receive leads. Now, he’s on a directory for free.
To help other Black-owned businesses flourish, he said, there needs to be more resources for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“It’s kind of hard to get experience if no one’s hiring you, and you’re dealing with lack of support in general,” he said. “You know, if you’re looking to expand to more of the commercial side, obviously you’re going to require more revenue in order to get bigger and better equipment to be able to account for the projects. So, unfortunately a lot of minority businesses don’t get the support that allows them to grow to be able to get them the things they need or want.”
Being a Black-owned business is important to him, because sometimes, he feels as if they get a bad rap from the public. “And there’s a lot of Black-owned businesses that are thriving,” he said. “So, it’s a lot of talented minorities in the city, all over, and we’re just like, you know we’re just like anybody else. We want the same opportunity to thrive and to make the money and things like that.”