For Black-Owned Businesses, Today's Boom Stirs Up 'Complicated' Feelings
Before this year, jeweler Alicia Goodwin’s business Lingua Nigra averaged about one to three sales per day, and almost 1,000 sales per year. And then June 2020 happened.
On paper, the sudden boom in business would be thrilling for any small business owner. But in reality, it’s more complicated than that. Like so many other Black-owned businesses, Goodwin’s brand was thrust into the spotlight in June in response to a national uprising in support of Black lives, racial equality and an end to systemic racism, an uprising that began as a response to the death of George Floyd (and countless other innocent Black people) at the hands of police.
What followed Floyd’s May 25 death was a June full of nationwide protests and things like Blackout Tuesday, an effort to shift attention toward Black voices and businesses. For Goodwin, the juxtaposition of the injustice with the sudden success felt “strange” — and understandably so.
“I’ve had to juggle mourning the loss of all these people who continue to be murdered without justice, while getting this bittersweet exposure,” Goodwin told HuffPost, going on to say that she feels “bused in” to the fashion industry. “I’ve been in the industry for over 15 years, with that much experience under my belt. I love my brand, but I’m not even sure I would have branched out on my own if I would have been able to get a job as a designer, rather than an assistant or a consultant when I worked at different companies in the past.”
Latoya Johnston is founder and CEO of Fresh Seed Glow, a natural and organic skin care brand that also has an Etsy shop. Johnston told HuffPost her sales exploded after being featured on the Black-owned Etsy shop page.
“On June 26 my Etsy shop sales were at 373 sales, and on June 30 my shop sales were at 493 sales,” Johnston said. “Two weeks later, my shop was up to 525 sales, and now it’s at 891 sales.”
Johnston, who has a full-time job in addition to running Fresh Seed Glow, said that the entire summer has been great business-wise, but also an “emotional roller coaster.”
“It’s been difficult at times to balance my full-time job, an Etsy shop, the current health crisis, and being Black in America,” Johnston said. “There are times when I am happy, and then sad. But I try to always stay positive, and my small business helps to keep me moving forward.”
Mahisha Dellinger is president and CEO of Curls Beauty Brands and told HuffPost that sales have “tripled” this summer, and that the growth has allowed the brand to expand executive and operations teams. But when it comes to being Black and running a business, things haven’t changed.
“Running a business as a Black business owner is always difficult … I haven’t experienced any shifts in that space,” Dellinger said. “The only difference is violent racism is being caught on camera … but systematic racism has always existed.”
As someone born in Ghana and raised in Canada who has recently expanded her business to the U.S. market, Menaye Donkor, founder of prestige skin care brand SHE-Y, has a unique perspective on the current spotlight of Black-owned brands in the U.S.
“It is actually quite sad, in a certain light that Black-owned business is even a ‘thing’ to begin with. You’d think that the world should have moved past racism by now. It simply tells us that humanity still has a long way to go,” Donkor said. “I am however, excited that the conversation about Black-owned businesses has been amplified and this movement will inspire the younger generation to do better and be better.”
Though Donkor currently lives and works in Ghana, “where her race is considered the majority,” she said she knows what it’s like to be marginalized because of your ethnicity. She also shares that she finds the idea of balancing running a business and coping with the emotional exhaustion that comes with protests “unsettling.”
Donkor echoed Goodwin’s feelings about this time.
“There is a certain amount of anger and frustration, because I have always been here, have been recognized by amazing accounts like the Smithsonian for years and now more people are finding me, as if I’m some sort of trend,” Goodwin said. “It’s as if all the work that I’ve done over a decade has been given exposure and recognition since June. Every week is akin to a year, while my white jeweler counterparts have always had this exposure and didn’t have to say yes to everything because who knows how long this will last?”
This is the question that many Black business owners are left with now: Will this last? Is it a trend? And if it is, what does that mean?
“I do worry that this is just a trend at this time,” Johnston said. “But, since there’s no way of knowing for sure, I follow my proven foundational philosophy for business, which is: Create stellar products, listen to your customer, provide great service, repeat. So, if this beautiful wave of expanded business is just a trend, I hope the relationships I’ve built with my customers will be long-lasting, and organically grow beyond the trending cycle.”
Goodwin is skeptical that all the attention may fade, too, but she remains focused on her business and her work, as she always has been.
“The folks who follow trends will definitely go on to the next, but I have found some genuine lovers of my work and of course they are always welcome to follow my journey,” Goodwin said.
The stories of these women are reminders that supporting Black-owned businesses or Black lives temporarily isn’t acceptable. Black lives matter, and so do Black-owned businesses — not just in June 2020 or summer 2020, but always.