Over the past six months, we’ve seen our social, political, and economic structures falter under the weight of this pandemic. Where the federal government failed, state and county officials have tried to ease our communities suffering. But digging deeper into the stories of the business owners featured in the first installment of our Black Woman-Owned Business Directory, we find that there’s still more work to be done.
After 17 years in business, Sakinah Irizarry hoped to grow her thriving massage therapy practice business by hiring other practitioners. But after months of shutdown, COVID regulations have drastically decreased the number of clients even a sole practitioner can serve in her space in one day while increasing expenses and the time required to book and screen clients. Right now, she’s operating at 25% and hoping for 50%.
Yet, as the mother of two boys, she says that the biggest challenge is, “figuring out how to support our children’s education, their needs, and being able to work at the same time—a balancing act that will fall mostly to women. That burden will drive some of them out of the workplace. And during local school district’s layoffs, that falls hard on women of colors’ shoulders because when our children aren’t doing well, it’s seen as a pathology instead of a matter of circumstance.”
Unfortunately, she’s found local business support lacking. The Ulster County Chamber of Commerce and the Ulster County recovery support calls for business owners focused on employers, not micro (with five employees or less) or minority-owned businesses. And when minority-owned firms were targeted, like with Ulster Equity’s five-year loan, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) loan with a 30-year repayment term was often a better fit.
There is a reason that black woman-owned microbusinesses are so important. Although black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, they have the lowest average number of employees at 0.2. If black women reached employment parity with white women, that would create an additional 2.4 million jobs.
If Irizarry and other black micro business women were able to get the “laser-focused grant opportunities” that she’s seen some of her other bodywork colleagues get, then maybe they could help close that employment gap.
Pilar Arthur-Snead’s business experience tells a similar story. Today, Arthur-Snead is a runner, a coach, and a content creator with a weekly fitness podcast highlighting black, brown, and queer communities with over 1,500 plays intending to become a fully-sponsored operation. Until April 30 of this year, she owned an art gallery in Troy.
After two decades of business experience and Chamber of Commerce membership, she was sick of spending 90 percent of her time as a gallery owner just trying to get noticed.
“It wasn’t until [my fifth and final year with the gallery] that people started to see me and acknowledge that I’m good at what I do, but by that point, I was burnt out,” she said.
Arthur-Snead described the local arts community as “a microcosm of the larger community: most businesses and structures are owned and designed by white people. And if you didn’t go to the right schools—in the Capital Region Art World that’s Bard or SUNY—you won’t have the right connections.” Arthur-Snead went to a school that allowed her to do coursework online while working full time; she “was always on the outside.”
As a one-woman show, she couldn’t compete with The Arts Center in Troy for visitors, buyers, investors, or foundations. Some foundations, like The Community Foundation, require five years of business tax returns. She only had her gallery for five years; she would be eligible to apply in her sixth. Similarly, the New York Foundation for the Arts had a grant to serve black, brown, and queer arts communities. But as a for profit—being black, queer, and serving those artists and communities with her gallery—she was disqualified. Removing barriers of access like this can be critical for black micro business women.
Overall, Arthur-Snead says that “Upstate suffers from this myth that black people are not interested in business.” She’s heard people say, “there are no black and brown business owners.”
But, there are. In the capital region, minority business owners created The Power Breakfast Club, which meets weekly at 6am so that people who are building their businesses while working a 9 to 5 can attend. The Club has over 1,500 members on Facebook and has garnered corporate sponsorship. And The Queer Exchange is a closed group that provides similar support for business owners in the LGBTQ+ community.
Even after 20 years Arthur-Sneed says, “it’s tiring to jump up and down and say I’m here. What do we have to do to be seen and heard?”
Dr. Kellian Collins has had a similar struggle for over a decade. She started KlevaKids to help low-income children of color in grades K-3 who lag behind in reading and math reach their potential.
Collins believes that “teachers need additional specialized tools to give these students a strong, solid foundation early on, so they don’t get further behind.” And when she saw that these tools did not exist for these children, she was determined to create them.
In 2016, after ten years in development, Dr. Collins published a series of books and materials that have proven to help one Westchester teacher improve her students’ learning over multiple years and two pilot programs.
Because public schools get their educational products from college or university review boards, as an independent practitioner, Collins has no protocol for getting her products into more districts next year.
In all three cases, these women, their families, and the communities they serve have yet to be seen, heard, acknowledged by chambers of commerce, county offices, SBA programs, school districts, foundations, and other resource outlets. If these institutions centered black micro business women in their outreach, they would alleviate their invisibility and begin a meaningful dialogue to create real change.
When microbusinesses represent 92% of all US businesses, structures, systems, and support created without black micro business women in mind will continue to miss the mark for what our communities really need—better jobs and opportunity for a larger slice of the pie.
Whatever you’re doing, take a minute today and call your county office of economic development and your local chamber of commerce. Find out what they’re doing to support black micro business women. Email me their response at email@example.com. Let’s keep the conversation going.