Sisters-in-law Ashley Billings and Zoe Baker both knew they could be strong business partners. After talking all summer last year, Baker took their discussions to another level in an email.
“The email was the incorporation of our company and the application for our business license,” Billings recalled. “It was the moment when I thought, ‘We’re actually going to do this. We’re going to make this happen.’ And it was exciting because, coming off the social justice movement, we had been conscientious about buying Black and supporting small businesses. And now we were going to jump into the fray.”
Six months later, in May, she and Baker launched A+Z Collections, an online apparel boutique that provides affordable luxury vacation wear that can be worn on the beach or at dinner.
“We love fashion and we love to travel,” Baker said, “so it’s two passions coming together as a business. Also, the social justice movement inspired a buy Black movement and it inspired independence and doing for self. So, it all came together for us.”
Their journey to business ownership reflects a surge in Black entrepreneurship after the first month of the pandemic. Businesses were initially crushed by the shelter-in-place orders. But out of necessity and inspired by the Black Lives Matter-led social justice movement after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, more Black workers became business owners compared to workers of other races, according to Robert Fairlie, a researcher and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Fairlie’s data, based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows there was a 38 percent increase in new Black business owners across the country from February 2020 to August 2021. Latino business owners increased by 15 percent in the same period, while white entrepreneurs fell by 3 percent and Asian entrepreneurs by 2 percent, according to Fairlie.
This follows his report last year that showed Black business ownership had fallen 41 percent in the first month of the pandemic. That initial report earned Fairlie the Bradford-Osborne Research Award for research in support of entrepreneurs of color.
Black people were hit hard economically by the pandemic, which shut down many industries and led to mass layoffs and job losses. Women, more broadly, and Black women in particular, were forced out of work to fill the caregiving gaps in their families. Essential workers, who were disproportionately Black, were vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Those are a few reasons for the dramatic increase after the initial fall, Fairlie said. Black people, especially Black women, left or were fired from their jobs at a disproportionate rate and instead of seeking new employment, started anew by becoming business owners. Also, many seized the opportunity of the call to buy Black, believing the support exists to make an upstart business a success.
In Billings’ case, she resigned from her position as a marketing director for a tanning salon in Atlanta to start A+Z Collection with Baker, a digital designer. The pull to step into business ownership was strong. “It was extremely hard to quit my job. It’s nice to get that direct deposit every two weeks,” said Billings, a wife and mother of a young son. "It’s scary to step out on faith. But I’m blessed to have a husband who supports this and is allowing me to pursue my dream.”
Becoming business owners was not a dream of sisters Sheylon Haywood and Sandy Reid, from Fresno, California. They happened upon it after Reid experienced severe digestive issues, nausea and a weakened immune system while pregnant with her second child.
Reid earned a degree in biological sciences from the University of California, Riverside; Haywood has a degree in kinesiology. “Research was our thing,” Reid, the younger of the two, said.
Haywood also was a certified mixologist and well-versed in combining ingredients, so she created a beverage with Peruvian ginger for her sister. Reid quickly felt better, and it was not long before she suggested they make the drinks to help others.
Within months, relying on intense research, they invested their savings and were in business as the owners of Ginsation, an organic drink featuring the Peruvian ginger, which is considered the most natural on earth, grown in the Amazon Basin, rarely touched by man.
Haywood crafted four holistic versions of their drink: Citrus Mist, Sunshine Burst, Cherry Delight and Fresh Zest, an unsweetened vegan option.
“The summer of 2020 was challenging,” Reid said. “But the social justice movement inspired us in a number of ways, including to take a leap into business. There’s always risk involved, but we believe in our product and we were empowered to do our own thing.”
Added Haywood: “And the pandemic showed us that there is no point in waiting. Life is too short and not one day is promised to us.”
This mindset was similar to Erinn Cottman’s, a veteran teacher and assistant principal who, during the pandemic, quit her job and started her company, Erinn Cottman Teacher Development. She trains educators across the country — in person and virtually — on how to cultivate an anti-racist environment that champions all students; how to build long-standing relationships with students, leadership for administrators and other staff; and how to increase influence by working with school partners, among many other areas.
She had been contemplating her business for some time. “In my head,” she said. “Finally, because we were teaching virtually, it allowed me time to really put all I had thought about on paper.”
In May, after six months of research and developing her curriculum, she bypassed a new job offer to launch her business. “A big but gratifying step,” she said.
All her career, she made a conscious decision to teach Black kids from underserved communities. As a consultant, she continues to reach them through the principals and teachers she instructs. She has clients in Atlanta, New Orleans, New Jersey and Texas.
“I probably shouldn’t have been so shocked at how well I am received,” Cottman said, “but I am. A little. Still, it’s gratifying because all of my clients are Black principals. Their staffs are diverse, but they are teaching the same kinds of kids I taught. And that’s important to me.”
For Trevor Lawrence, it was important that the business he launched this year focuses on Black empowerment. He worked for decades in the health care industry in Oakland, California. But when the state legalized cannabis, he began researching and learning of the myriad health properties found in the plant.
So, he applied for a license through the city program that was designed to attract people of color to the industry. For three years, he completed the seemingly endless requirements to finally earn his manufacturing and distribution license.
During the pandemic, he made his venture, Kamnisha Wellness, his only job. “When you consider how criminalized marijuana was — and still is in too many places — and how Black people have been incarcerated for it, it’s devastating to individuals and communities,” Lawrence said. “Now, people are finally learning that the cannabis plant is an amazing healer. And that’s what drives me in business — informing our community that cannabis is the avenue to greater health. It can heal our community naturally.”
Kamnisha Wellness is a manufacturer of custom topical, organic CBD oils that deal with pain management, incontinence and at least 55 other ailments.
“It’s time our community understand there is a viable, safe, plant-based option for us,” Lawrence said. “But there remains a stigma attached to it that we have to get over. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry because people are acknowledging its power. We, as a community, have to get there, too. That’s a driving force for me.”
The new entrepreneurs, while enthused about their ventures, understand the work is intense.
“In many cases,” Billings said, “it’s not that hard to start a business, especially an online retail boutique. But it takes a lot to maintain it. And that’s where the excitement of owning a business meets the reality of making it successful. We believe in buying Black, and we are counting on that mindset from everyone to help all these new businesses thrive. We have the buying power to do that.”