Tomorrow’s young entrepreneurs need mentoring opportunities today
By Charles Hallman
Though the number of Black-owned businesses in Minnesota has been on the rise over the past 20 years, many of them fail to make it past the five-year mark that is generally believed to be the make-it-or-break-it period for new businesses. Currently there are over 200 different types of Black businesses in the Twin Cities area.
The MSR recently talked with local Black business people who offered first-hand advice on how to help a Black business thrive today.
“We have a great number of barbershops and hair salons, but I would like to see lawyers…and other [Black businesses] in the professional realm,” observed Michael Wright, St. Paul’s Golden Thyme owner and operator. He remembered once attending an entrepreneur class at the Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul. The instructor later told him he would be a “lead-pipe cinch,” in other words a sure thing, as a business owner, Wright recalled.
It’s been about 16 years since he was a student in that class, said Wright. “I was blessed with just a sliver of a mustard seed of creativeness. My credit was good, but wasn’t the best” when he started out, he admitted. “But there are ways of getting around that. It is time consuming. We can’t give up.”
“What we have a problem with is anybody critiquing your business,” believes Wright. “That’s one thing that we have to be open to as a people, if someone is critiquing our business.”
“You obviously have to have the heart, desire and the drive to do it,” Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce President Lea Hargett pointed out on successfully starting and running a business.
Hargett’s grandmother, who raised her after her mother died when she was age 11, put Hargett in Junior Achievement. “At age 12, we were thinking about what kind of businesses we wanted to start. I’ve always been focused and understood the power of economics related to business and how you are able to control your destiny and the outcome for others as well,” she said.
There are some Black business owners, however, who lack “business-readiness,” continued Hargett. “I don’t care if they are young or old, for the most part we are all first-generation [business people].”
She became interested in business at a young age growing up in Chicago. “I grew up on Chicago’s South Side, and I did grow up at a time when there were a number of Black-owned businesses. I used to live in a neighborhood where most of the businesses in our neighborhood [were owned by Blacks] — the dry cleaners, two Black-owned banks, and the Chicago Defender.
“My uncle used to own a business,” she continued. “I saw everyday Black businesses. I saw Black people running businesses, making decisions. When we did our grocery shopping or ran our errands, it always was in the neighborhood. We had everything there. We didn’t go downtown or to the mall. All of that was an influence on me.”
However, “Most of us grew up without [business] role models,” said Barbara Davis of Ken Davis Products, which was started by her late husband. “We’re working in a business, so the role of mentor is new to us. We don’t know how to do it as much as the young people know how to ask for it. I think it is important to have a role model and have someone to talk to about your problems as you go through trying to build your business.”
On the suggestion of Black business people “passing the baton” from one generation to the next, “I think there is this misinterpretation…that the older generation is a lot more successful and is in a position to do [more] than we are,” said Hargett. “I think that there are a lot of older people in their 50s, and maybe their 60s, [who] are just now achieving it.
“They have been fighting this fight, and while they are fighting all this time to try to get to where they are at today, they haven’t had time [for] any succession planning or being involved to pass along information or mentor to young people because of the struggles they had to endure,” Hargett said. “But I can point to a few people who I know are intentionally trying to nurture the young generation.”
“We have to teach our kids,” Wright said, “and I’m talking first and second grade, about owning their own business. We want to put things to their minds about ownership instead of getting a job, going to college and working for somebody [else]. Own your own if you can.
“Do it while you’re young if you can, because if it does falter, you’re strong and young enough to pull yourself up and keep going,” concluded Wright.
Next: A conversation with two Black business owners
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