Without a doubt, the data points to the sobering fact that Black and brown-owned businesses have taken a disproportionate hit from the coronavirus.
In the past year, more minority-owned businesses have gone under or drastically reduced their staff and hours. A survey by H&R Block released in February found more than half of Black small businesses owners said their revenue fell by at least 50% (by comparison, 37% of white small business owners responded similarly).
But the narrative is not wholly one of despair and devastation. For some Black and brown business owners, the protracted coronavirus pandemic has forced them to tap the grit and determination that many of them say has been a perennial prerequisite for their demographic to survive in the business world.
“It was crippling,” said Tyshawn Williams, owner of Faded Precision Barbershop. “This has been so unique. It probably won’t be duplicated in my lifetime. I‘ve never been through anything like this with masks and people afraid to come into our establishment.”
This past year, Williams summoned a measure of entrepreneurial equanimity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Williams finally pivoted on the success of his five-year venture, the Faded Barbershop on Derry Street, and opened a new location a few miles down the road. That was in February. A few weeks later, Pennsylvania went on lockdown.
Like countless other entrepreneurs, Williams watched as the coronavirus pandemic brought all momentum to a halt. He faced months of uncertainty, even as rent and other business obligations required fulfillment.
Few businesses have escaped unscathed by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Legions of people have lost their jobs; scores of businesses have gone under.
Black-owned businesses, in particular, have had to navigate a disproportionate racial toll, not only to their health, but their businesses.
Amid historical disparities in banking and lending, Black-owned businesses have seen higher rates of forced closures, defaults and fallout from the economic downturn. Many were unable to capitalize on federal emergency funds and grants.
Some say they are still recovering. Yet, those that have survived bear out the resilience that Black business owners say has always defined their outlook.
“We re-engaged our survival skills,” said Shariah Brown, business owner and chairwoman of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania. “We have always known how to pivot. Things don’t work out, especially in the Black community. I think we are more durable. People make jokes about it but Black people survive.”
Brown is referring to the higher rates of Black business owners who do not have a college education, or may have had the advantages of networking or even legacy education.
“Your parents may not have talked to you about good credit but you have survival skills,” she said. “We have been using that. We have had to overcome so many things.”
Latino-owned businesses have been through a similar experience.
The construction business and particularly the hospitality and restaurant business sectors have taken massive hits.
Paul Navarro, president and CEO of Navarro & Wright Consulting Engineering and the most recent director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania, personally assisted scores of business ventures this year with their application of federal PPE programs.
“Their numbers were down 25 to 60 percent or higher,” he said. “Construction slowed down, especially in commercial and residential sectors in Cumberland, Dauphin, York and Lancaster counties…A lot of those businesses were at a standstill.”
Still, Brown pushes back on the popular narrative that for Black-owned businesses, the pandemic experience has been one of despair. For many, it has afforded an opportunity to pivot into other lucrative directions.
“There’s opportunity,” she said. “The web doesn’t see color. Not that there aren’t a lot of issues. I’m not saying Black and brown people do not face a disparity. It’s proven but we need to start talking about people who are winning. A lot of people I know count their wins. Everyone puts a despair twist to it. Yes it’s there, but the only thing I can talk about are success stories.”
Resilience and faith
Count husband and wife team Titus and Anya Queen among the success stories.
Like Williams, the Queens had just opened their Queen’s BBQ & Southern Cuisine eatery in Harrisburg one month before the lockdown.
Since they were so recently established, their business did not qualify for loans or grants. Things looked dismal for a while, but the Queens turned to curbside pick-up and, especially, to social media.
They were amazed at the response. The Queens said the community’s response was overwhelming.
“We always try to give 5-star service and love on people,” Anya said. “Even before COVID, you are not just a customer. You become family. But the community rallied around us. People would post on Facebook, ‘I’m going to be there. I’m going to make sure you stay in business.’”
And they did. The orders for their beef brisket, baby back ribs and pulled pork kept coming in, and many days, the Queens sold out of all the food they had prepared.
“Failure was not going to be an option,” said Titus Queen. “Resilience was the way to go about it, and keeping an optimistic mind and praying. Praying very hard. Praying for health and praying for business.”
Businesses, for the most part, are rebounding, if not recovering, even if slowly.
That’s certainly the case for the construction sector as it impacts Latino-owned businesses, Navarro said.
The restaurant sector, not so much, he said.
Pat Majon, owner of Los Tres Cubanos restaurant in Harrisburg, said she is grateful to still be in business. She said she has seen a lot of restaurants go under.
“It’s not just Black and Hispanic. I think it’s just hit anyone in the hospitality business,” Majon said. “A lot of restaurants have closed. I count my blessings that I’m still opened.”
Like many restaurant owners, Majon has spared little effort to retrofit her restaurant to comply with pandemic guidelines, including installing room partitions and outdoor heaters.
“Of course when it’s 17 degrees out, I don’t care what kind of heater you have,” she quipped.
But many have had to make that tough call and lay off staff. Majon had no choice but to do so just before Christmas, when she had to lay off some of her staff.
“That killed me,” Majon said.
The good news: She has since brought her small team back up to full roster, and she credits her Shipoke community with helping her stay afloat.
“I thank God for them,” said Majon, who prior to the pandemic, did not really do much takeout. “Takeout has been our saving grace.”
‘Know your numbers’
For many Black and brown-owned businesses, survival has hinged on tried-and-true resources.
Leland Nelson, co-Founder of Dirty Dog Hauling, and president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania, said his members have been clamoring for resources. He has been helping to connect them with consultants and banks, and applying for federal business loans and grants.
Nelson said the pandemic has forced many Black business owners to stay on top of best practices to avoid catastrophe.
“It’s exposing small companies, minority-owned companies to the fact that they have to get their financial house in order,” he said. “You have to know your numbers. That way when you upload your numbers, a reviewer can provide you with a loan with confidence.”
The Hispanic business community has dealt with similar challenges – plus, at times, language barriers and daunting financial record-keeping requirements.
“It seems to overwhelm some loan applicants because they need a lot of documentation,” Navarro said. “A lot of folks end up giving up.”
At times, even cultural differences in terms of doing business can get in the way.
“Sometimes they are coming from countries that are more lax or don’t need three years of financial records,” Navarro said. “At the end of the day, once you learn that this is what is going to be required, folks are more cognizant.”
For many minority-owned businesses, collaboration has been critical to survival.
Many small ventures, for instance, have little chance competing against large – even behemoth – companies. But David Dix, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on African-American Affairs, said as part of a consortium, Black-owned businesses stand far better chances for success – and contracts.
That has largely been the approach taken by the commission, and exemplified by a cleaning services collaborative of about seven to eight businesses that won a contract to sanitize the state Capitol.
“Any one company may not have been able to do that,” Dix said. “But in the aggregate of those companies, through their combined efforts and even the financing to make payroll, they shared resources and leaned on capacity. Then we can make this response.”
That business model is widely applicable, Dix said.
“That’s the way we have to start thinking about how Black businesses should be scaled if they always have to make cataclysmic leaps to compete with the IBMs,” he said. “They are not going to, but partner them up in the aggregate and they are able to respond to contracts that IBM might go for.”
A similar strategy is needed in the Latino business sector, said Gloria Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg.
Collaboration and a concerted effort on the part of officials and commerce sectors are needed to help businesses maintain, retrofit and turn to technology during the protracted pandemic and beyond.
“This is an opportunity for our local officials and those running for office to speak up for and demonstrate their complete commitment and genuine concern for helping our business community survive and ultimately thrive in the face of adversity,” Merrick said. “Business owners are not just listening, they are watching.”
Latino-owned businesses have been forced to pivot, she said. Many that in the past relied on word of mouth or neighborhood traffic have been compelled to engage in social media marketing or risk demise.
“Those networks are broken,” Merrick said. “You can have a great network but if people can’t get to you, if they can’t come to your business for pick up or take out, you are at a tremendous disadvantage. You have just lost your vital five feet to your community. That impacts your business, it impacts your sales and your ability to survive.”
Majon is encouraged by the new directives out of the Wolf administration targeting minority-owned businesses, in particular, those in the hospitality sector.
“Maybe that will get us through until the nice weather comes and more people get vaccine shots,” she said.
Majon, who has a high-risk health factor, has been running her business remotely from home for a year.
“I have a small but good staff,” she said.
‘It’s getting better’
Tyshawn Williams couldn’t hire for months but he got creative and managed to keep the new location afloat, largely tapping the resources of the other barbershop. He has had a slow go at re-igniting the momentum, but it’s happening. He reopened a few months ago and hired barbers; the new location is now up to seven barbers. His plan to open a barber school on-site, which he put on hold for months, is slowly unfolding again.
The hair and cosmetology industry is widely considered recession-proof, Williams notes. No matter how restricted social interactions have been, the demand for his services has held up.
“People still want to feel good about themselves, Williams said. “They still want a haircut. It’s like restaurants. People still want to eat.”
Still as the one-year mark of the pandemic approaches, Williams knows he is fortunate to have both barber shops open.
“We were able to maintain some flow,” he said. “But it’s been hard. Definitely hard. We haven’t recovered fully, but it’s getting better.”
Williams hopes to establish the barber school and have it become a feeder program for other barber shops in the city.
“I want to help the younger generation. Help them get their license,” said Williams, who learned his trade from “the older guys in the city.”
The Queens continue to feed their community, as well as the homeless. They also give a nod to student excellence by giving students who have made the honor roll a free dinner.
“We are still here trying,” said Anya Queen.
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