Racism stings at black-owned businesses

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.

Steering spending

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?’”

Limited choices

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.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Think Tank Cowork in Everett, Washington on July 19, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
The first co-working space opens in downtown Everett

Think Tank Cowork’s owner hopes the facility will inspire other business owners to call Everett home.

New LGI Homes on Thursday, May 12, 2022 in Sultan, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The real estate market took an abrupt turn this spring

Mortgage rates are up, but home inspections, seller concessions are back on the table for buyers.

The Lab@Arlington is a new one-stop shop for entrepreneurs and inventors located at 404 N. Olympic Ave. (Photo credit: TheLab@Arlington)
New Arlington business incubator opens

TheLab@Arlington is a new one-stop shop for entrepreneurs, inventors and business owners.

Patrons view the 787 exhibition Thursday morning at the Boeing Future of Flight Musuem at Paine Field on October 8, 2020. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Paine Field was county’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Not now

Snohomish County officials hope festivals and outdoor activities will fill Paine Field tourist gap.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Stanwood in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Stanwood Chamber of Commerce ‘can’t keep the doors open’

The chamber is set to shut down at the end of the month due to financial challenges.

Maria Rios, a ferry worker of 13 years, helps Frank and Fran Butler, both of Washington, D.C., check out as the couple purchases food on Thursday, July 21, 2022, aboard the MV Suquamish ferry between Mukilteo and Clinton, Washington. Rios said food service returned to the Suquamish about three weeks prior. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Drink up! Happy hour on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry is back

More galleys are reopening as pandemic restrictions scale back. Get out of your car for concessions just like at the ballpark.

OnTrac Logistics has leased a building now under construction at Bay Wood Business Park on Everett's waterfront. The shipping company will open a facility there later this year that will employ 400 people. (Artist Rendering/Broderick Group.)
New Everett shipping facility to generate 400 jobs

OnTrac Logistics has leased a new building on the 12½-acre Baywood Business Park on Everett’s waterfront.

The Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum at Paine Field in Everett. (Janice Podsada / The Herald) 20220419
Flying Heritage Museum to reopen with new owner at Paine Field

Walmart heir Steuart Walton bought the historic aircraft and artifacts. The museum is set to reopen within the year.

Renee's Contemporary Clothing store at 2820 Colby Ave. on July 11, 2022. The iconic downtown Everett store is closing in August after 29 years in business. (Janice Podsada/The Herald)
Renee’s, another iconic downtown Everett store, is closing

After 29 years in business, the longstanding clothing shop will shutter. In-person sales slowed when stores reopened.

FILE - The logo for Boeing appears on a screen above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Boeing is reporting a money-losing quarter as both its civilian-airplane division and the defense business are struggling. Boeing said Wednesday, April 27, 2022,  that it lost $1.24 billion in the first quarter and took large write-downs for several programs.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
Boeing sees best month for aircraft deliveries since 2019

The company delivered 51 passenger and cargo planes in June, its best month for deliveries in recent years.

The Alderwood Towne Center, a 105,000 square-foot strip mall, is located at 3105-3225 Alderwood Mall Blvd. The mall, which has been sold, is home to 20 businesses, including anchor tenants Marshalls and Michaels. Photo Credit: CBRE Group.
Lynnwood strip mall near Link Light Rail Station sold

Alderwood Towne Center, home to 20 businesses, could eventually be redeveloped to take advantage of light rail.

James Berntson shows how his farm uses a trellis system to control tomato plants on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Radicle Roots Farm in Snohomish, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Backyard business: Snohomish farm thrives on less than one acre.

James Berntson grew Radicle Roots Farm using smart crop planning and organic practices.