According to at least one expert, there’s another golden age on the horizon for Black-owned businesses with the right support and collaboration. And Atlanta seems positioned to be on the cusp of such a revival.
According to a report earlier this year from Lending Tree, the Atlanta metro area boasts the highest rate nationally of Black-owned businesses at 7.4%. Given that distinction and the fact that August is National Black Business Month, now is the time to recognize the achievements and innovation of Atlanta’s Black business owners, a significant portion of whom are older adults trailblazing in a second career or hovering at the pinnacle of a long term entrepreneurial endeavor.
“The way I see it, this is a time for celebration, reflection and action,” Leon Prieto, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Business at Clayton State University told the AJC. “(August is) a time to really celebrate the achievements of these Black entrepreneurs and businesses and to really fully recognize the contributions to the economy and society.”
The past and future
It’s necessary to examine the past in order to understand the possibilities for the future of Black-owned businesses, according to Prieto, who co-authored a book, “African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage.” He has written on the subject in an MIT Sloan Management Review article.
The original golden age of Black-owned businesses, he said, stretched from 1900 to 1930 — these enterprises thrived despite the especially fierce racial oppression that raged during that period.
“So, during that time in American history, in spite of segregation and Jim Crow (laws), there were a number of Black businesses that were very successful due to the advantage that many of those businesses possessed,” he said.
Those advantages, including engagement in community, dialogue, and consensus among community members could go a long way today in launching Black-owned businesses into their next golden age. Support for business owners via venture capital funds for expansion is also key, he said.
Financial support and mentorship
Tracey Grace, 52, is president and CEO of Sandy Springs-based IBEX IT Business Experts. She’s experienced the type of support Prieto mentioned and is now doing her part in paying it forward.
Her own entrepreneurial endeavors began in health information technology 11 years ago with support from programs through financial institutions like Capital One. Now, she’s helping other organizations meet their sustainability goals, and she’s mentoring business owners locally.
Grace initially built IBEX through federal government contracting, and the company more recently launched Certifiably Diverse, a software development product that helps organizations work with diverse suppliers. Organizations using Certifiably Diverse are often working to meet their environmental, social, and governance goals, which they model on United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs standards, Grace said. Partnerships with diverse suppliers — businesses furnishing materials or goods under the ownership of typically underrepresented demographics — she said, help fulfill ESG goals.
Grace is active locally with the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. She’s won its small Business of the Year award, is on its board of directors, and mentors younger entrepreneurs. Support for organizations looking to grow, she contended, can come through smaller partnerships for business owners who haven’t yet broken into collaborations with large, corporate entities.
“It is very difficult for small businesses to get corporate business,” she said. “A lot of people have dreams that they’re just going to jump up and get an engagement with, like, a Coca-Cola or something, but, really, what I recommend for smaller businesses that are looking to get corporate businesses at large, fortune 500-type companies is through partnering.”
Stepping forward in areas of specialization through subcontracting initially can allow businesses to work their way up to those larger partnerships, she said, and small business owners can find opportunities to receive mentoring this way, too.
Building a legacy of quality
Like Grace, the founders of another locally based company stepped forward into innovation just over a decade ago.
On a Tuesday afternoon video call, the founders of College Park-based True Laundry were seated together to discuss the growth of their detergent business. Over the course of the conversation, Malik Saleem, 64, Ali B. Muhammad, 79, and Abdur-Rahim Shaheed, 74, displayed the brightly packaged True products for the camera. There’s the flagship high-efficiency detergent, its free and clear iteration for sensitive skin, a vegan fabric softener, and a biodegradable dryer sheet (it’s great for cleaning bathtubs, too, for those wondering).
The trio began the company with a vision of providing consumers with an effective product that would save them money, Muhammad said. The detergent’s concentrated makeup has delivered that value by allowing users to use smaller amounts, allowing supplies to last much longer than typical formulas.
True Laundry detergents are now available in 25 states, Shaheed said, and the company has international aspirations. According to its website, thetrueproducts.com, Georgians can purchase the products in dozens of locations across the state from local retailers. For Muhummad, the development and growth of the brand have revolved largely around caring for others.
“We love serving people. We’re excited people have been buying this product for the last 10 years,” he said.
In creating a legacy for a Black-owned business, the founders knew they wanted True to proliferate. That idea meant putting together a foundation future generations can build on.
“We wanted to create a business that would go on,” Shaheed said.
And they’ve focused on perhaps the most straightforward of business goals: quality.
“We have to produce quality products,” Saleem said. “Our community appreciates when we put quality first.
Carlita White, 76, of Castleberry Hill grew her Carlita White Jewelry company from a hobby after retiring from a 40-year federal government career.
She moved to Atlanta two years ago and found a community ready to help her prosper. She’s worked with the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, which supports Black-owned businesses through education, mentoring and networking.
“Never have I found so many organizations dedicated to helping Black businesses flourish,” she said. “There’s always challenges starting over, especially in your 70s, learning the different requirements for doing business and finding your market.”
Her custom creations help their owners stand out in the workplace or in social circles. The jewelry is often bold, featuring natural ornamentation — bright pink slices of agate, chunks of ocean jasper, and multicolored mother of pearl. Her clients are women from all backgrounds, she said, who “love to show up differently.”
Public attention especially in the past few years, White said, has also helped Black-owned businesses thrive.
“Not only did sales increase in my community, I met some incredible people doing incredible things and also found some amazing companies I can support,” she said.
Her advice to the public in supporting Black-owned businesses: show kindness and respect, and spread the word.
“My advice to consumers is to show more grace to Black entrepreneurs,” she said. “A lot of us are new at this and don’t know or have the resources for everything. Make your suggestions for improvements kindly, and please don’t approach expecting a discount. There’s a lot of hard work and plenty of expenses to run even the smallest business. If you have a great product or great experience, please share it with the business owner and promote it with others.”