PITTSBURGH — When Paulette Still left a career in banking to open Posy Flower Design and Event Decor, she expected to sacrifice a steady and hefty paycheck for the chance to be her own boss. She didn’t expect the number of people who would challenge her entrepreneurship based strictly on her race.
After the doors of her storefront opened in 2010, a doctor buying flowers for his wife informed her that she couldn’t be the owner because black people in Pittsburgh “owned wig stores and cleaning businesses.” When she switched to appointment-only hours, customers would book appointments based on the strength of her work featured online only to “turn on their heels” after seeing her in person.
“I had someone say, ‘You should have your picture on the website,’” she said. “I showed you my flowers and my work and you were excited but you met me and you weren’t excited anymore.”
According to 2006 Census figures, black-owned businesses nationally have average annual sales of $74,018, compared to $439,579 in sales for white-owned firms. Black-owned businesses received 1.7 percent of $23.09 billion in Small Business Administration loans in the 2013 fiscal year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Nationally, efforts such as cash mobs — challenges designed to steer customers toward specific businesses — have popped up in an attempt to address the issue. That movement has touched Pittsburgh, as well, but here the effect has been to highlight the limited number of black-owned businesses providing gasoline, fresh produce and other essentials.
The challenge, supporters say, often becomes finding places that support the African-American business community and one’s own lifestyle.
Ten dollars may not change a company’s profit margin, but some hope that it could change a few minds.
That notion was the catalyst behind the One Large project, a black business spending initiative launched in May by poet Joy Katz and University of Pittsburgh assistant professor and head of performance Cindy Croot.
The duo, who met in New York before relocating to Pittsburgh, had received a $1,000 grant from The Sprout Fund with a mission to “activate a space within the city.”
“Rather than choosing a sculpture garden or a piece of existing art or another kind of space, we thought: Why don’t we use the grant money and send people into black-owned businesses? So we divided the grant into 100 equal bits to give to people, and had them pledge to spend money either in Pittsburgh or in a home community anywhere on earth in a black-owned business and document their experience,” said Katz.
With artists from Pittsburgh to Cairo taking part in the month-long experiment, results varied wildly.
Some dropped a single Alexander Hamilton in a local restaurant or barber shop.
Others spent far more with black physicians, consultants and florists, including a woman who bought all of her wedding flowers from Posy Flower Design. An Egyptian participant changed the $10 bill into an Egyptian pound that was spent with an immigrant farmer.
Croot and Katz said putting a few extra dollars into the system made the experiment a success, but the true accomplishment was in spotlighting just how few and far between black businesses were in some areas.
“One of the major outcomes was how difficult (the experiment) was,” said Croot. “People had a really difficult time finding black-owned businesses and they would email us saying, ‘Where do we go? How do we find them?’”
The challenge came as no surprise to Vernard Alexander, who created the Minority Networking Exchange in 2006 to connect black- and minority-owned businesses in the Pittsburgh region.
Known among peers as the “Connecting King,” Alexander has spearheaded more than five cash mobs over the past three years for black-owned businesses such as Carmi’s Family Restaurant and the African American Music Institute.
But when he decided to spend his own money exclusively in black-owned businesses for a month, a lack of choices impeded the effort. Finding a good restaurant or barber was no problem, but when it came time to buy gasoline he hit a roadblock.
He played with the idea of buying gas cards at a black-owned supermarket but eventually gave up and moved on to a financial fast that limited spending to all businesses.
“I wanted to try to spend 100 percent of my disposable income with black businesses, but with our current makeup I don’t know if I could legitimately do it for a whole month or even a whole week because of the type of businesses we have,” he said.
Eugene Thomas, a black man who owns Pittsburgh’s Quick-It Chicken franchise, said two years ago he leased the convenience store and gas pumps attached to one of his business’s locations.
In his view, the region has been losing a variety of black-owned businesses since the early 1990s due to economic and social problems.
“If you go back 15 years, there was a lot of violence — there’s still neighborhood violence, but there was a lot of gang violence — in the city’s black neighborhoods,” he said. “Throughout that period, our neighborhood stores were almost nonexistent.”
Working with what’s here
Much has been lost, but the true issue is the number of emerging black businesses that don’t receive recognition, said Doris Carson Williams, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania.
An analysis of the 2007 National Survey of Business done by Carnegie Mellon University professor Harold Miller notes that the Pittsburgh region had 6,101 black-owned firms, the fifth smallest amount of 38 metropolitan areas analyzed.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s black-owned companies did have an average of 10.7 workers, the 12th highest among the 38 regions studied.
The businesses averaged $1.2 million in annual sales, the seventh highest average among regions studied.
Noting that the African-American chamber features 511 member businesses — 78 percent of which are black-owned — Carson Williams said greater use of the chamber’s database, the Black Business Directory, the minority purchasing council and the Allegheny Conference, a community development group, can steer people toward black-owned attorneys, engineers and other professionals.
Even without organized efforts, Carson Williams said if all groups support black businesses in Pittsburgh and across the country, the expanding economy would ultimately benefit all.
“As black business owners, we all know each other and need to hold each other up higher, and the majority community is needed to be as supportive of us as we are of them,” she said.