Minneapolis is the middle of the inaugural Black Business Week (July 19-27), a 9-day event organized to celebrate and promote African-American-owned businesses. So it’s only fitting that the Black Women Makers and Innovators event Wednesday evening was hosted by the newly opened and extremely swanky African-American-owned Gold Room Restaurant & Lounge in downtown Minneapolis.
“I’m proud to see so many exceptional people in the room tonight,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 business community members, as throngs heading toward the Aquatennial Torchlight Parade and Target Field streamed past the Gold Room’s picture windows looking out onto Hennepin Avenue.
“According to American Progress, Black women-owned businesses grew by 258 percent between 1997 and 2013,” noted the event’s promotional materials. “Yet, ninety-seven percent of these businesses are sole-proprietors which reflects the challenges many Black women face in growing their business. In 2018, Minneapolis Mayor [Jacob Frey] and the City Council set a strategic priority to address the gap in business success for Black, Indigenous and People of Color in our city.”
Along with Frey and his staff, the Black Women Makers and Innovators event brought together area African-American entrepreneurs, business owners, and investors for a night of networking and a panel discussion on the unique challenges facing African-American women and business. MinnPost took in the event, in photos and interviews:
Shauen Pearce, event organizer and director of economic development and inclusion policy for Mayor Jacob Frey: “Since the beginning of this country, African-Americans in particular have been systematically excluded from economic success, right? And one of the ways that we’ve been able to survive in this country literally until a few decades ago being completely locked out, was through cooperation and collaboration with each other. So we did have Black Wall Street that served the entire nation, and we have had these sort of pockets of support. So tonight is just as much about rebuilding that cooperative networking that’s required to support business as it is to bringing city resources to making sure that black women who own businesses in our city can actually thrive.
“In a really personal way, we hear a lot of stories in our market about all people of color, but particularly black people and especially black women, expressing this feeling of isolation in their companies, sometimes expressing a lack of sense of place and ability to connect to each other and find each other, and you hear a lot of employers and people who work in government say things like, ‘Oh we couldn’t do business with a black-owned company or a minority-owned company because we couldn’t find one to do business with,’ right?
“Tonight and the entire Black Business Week is actually about proving them wrong. We have over 400 people confirmed for tonight, we have more than enough black women doing amazing things in our city, and the reality is that people are not often connected to us as black women. So working together, working with others, working with the city is really how we’re going to grow.”
Kenya McKnight-Ahad, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance: “For one example [of why the event is important], I think about a woman I know, Shantae Holmes, who owns All Washed Up laundromat.
“In the mid-2000s, she started the company. She started with a credit score well over 650; she came with close to $20,000 of her own money; a house … she had everything we say we need for entrepreneurs to get started with a business loan. Well, because of her background and having a felony, she was turned down by five banks, and it took over four different types of nonprofit business lenders to provide her with loans.
“It was just the lack of proper access, right? And straight up, in my opinion, discrimination. She met the criteria, and she had assets that she brought to the table, and that’s the story of many black women. We are leading new business starts across the United States and in Minnesota, so we are America’s entrepreneurs, but we don’t have access to financial and social capital to help us navigate and be successful in the system.”
Wendy Puckett, Natalie Johnson Lee, Nicole Pacini: “I’m with Wendy’s House Of Soul — you’ve been souled,” said Puckett. “My experience [as an African-American restaurant owner] has been amazing, but it is a struggle. You’ve got to find the money out there and be committed. It takes a lot of work, but I’m in it. I’m in it to win it. This event is great, because we can network and meet a lot of people in the same position. Some men don’t realize we’ve got what it takes; it’s not always a man behind us.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey addressed the crowd: “We need to make sure that the precision of our solutions match the precision of the harm that was initially inflicted, and we know that our black communities — specifically our black women — have been excluded from a number of different assets that would otherwise lead to financial and business success. This has happened over decades, right? We know that over the last 10 years, black women-owned business have grown at a rate of 168 percent. … I’m proud to see so many exceptional people in the room tonight, and this has exceeded all expectations, so what do you say we do it again next year?”
Suado Abdi, member of the City of Minneapolis Small Business Team, and Joy Marsh Stephens, director of the Division of Race and Equity for the City of Minneapolis: “We recognize that black women start businesses at a very, very fast rate, in fact faster than most other people start businesses, but they also have some of the hardest times sustaining and growing businesses over time,” said Joy Marsh Stephens. “So setting aside a specific evening during Black Business Week to center these black women makers, builders, and innovators in a space together where they can build a stronger connection and network is important. I’ve been in my position for four years, and this is the first time the city has dedicated an entire week to black business.”