Malls and misconceptions: Black-owned businesses face unique challenges

Second in a series 


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Black-owned businesses in Minnesota have grown steadily over a 20-year span. According to the U.S. Economic Census taken every five years, there were 4,024 Black businesses in 1997; then the number grew to 7,837. The latest count, based on the 2007 census, tallied 12,454 Black-owned businesses in the state. Updated information based on the 2012 census will be released later this fall.

However, percentage-wise, Black businesses only make up 2.5 percent of all Minnesota businesses, and just over five percent of all businesses in Hennepin County — nationwide, 13 percent of all U.S. businesses are Black owned. Nearly four percent of businesses located in the Twin Cities are Black-owned.

Eugene Banks Photos by Charles Hallman
Eugene Banks
Photos by Charles Hallman

Eugene Banks

The MSR asked several Black business owners what they have to face besides the usual challenges associated with starting and sustaining a business. Competing with larger outlets or mall-based businesses is a challenge, says Eugene Banks, whose computer and cell phone store is located on the corner of 38th Street and Fourth Avenue South in Minneapolis.

“[Consumers] go straight to the mall,” Banks says. “They don’t go shop in the neighborhood [anymore].”

That Black-owned businesses too often offer poor customer service is a misconception that still exists, adds Cameron Cook, whose barbershop is located at the same location. “I support all Black businesses, but it’s hard to go to [them] if they are not consistent with the same level of customer service [consumers usually get elsewhere],” he believes.

Michael Wright, who opened Golden Thyme Coffee Shop in the Selby Avenue neighborhood of St. Paul in 2000, remembers one obstacle was attracting customers. “The challenges were making our folk understand what a gourmet coffee shop is. That was a hurdle to get over, [because] well-educated folk for the most part are the ones who consume the gourmet beverages.”

As a result, his present location “is the last spot I wanted to put a gourmet coffee shop,” he admits. “There were about three other places, but unfortunately they fell through.”

Cameron Cook
Cameron Cook

Also, it’s a challenge to keep prices reasonable while also staying competitive and profitable “where we are not looking like we are trying to gouge our community,” adds Wright. “I had to introduce a lot more moderate-priced items. We had to hit right in the middle, but we also [have] to do a good product.”

Battling sexist misconceptions is challenging as well, states MSR CEO/Publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard. “I’ve had that experience being out at some of the community events. It seems that I don’t get the same reception that I see them giving the other male business people. I think that still is out there where if you are a woman — and in some cases if you are a Black woman — I still do struggle with that quite often, primarily in the Black community,” she explains.

Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce President Lea Hargett says that Black business owners must be ready to face and take on any and all challenges whenever necessary. “When we were young growing up, [sitting] around our table we weren’t talking about business because our families didn’t own businesses. We didn’t grow up with the business acumen that others may have, so we have to develop that acumen now, and it starts with recognizing that you need to do that.

“I think a lot of us, for some reason, look from the outside in sometimes: ‘All I have to do is throw up a shingle and I am in business,’” continues Hargett. “We don’t understand that we have to continuously learn…keep current with the trends and the difference between doing business today and 10 years ago.”

As a result, impatience comes into play, which can hurt rather than help the business owner be successful, she points out. “[Today’s] generation is no different than any other generation. We are all very impatient, and we think that we know a lot. When we are launching our businesses, we might be subject-matter experts, but we might not necessarily understand the other nuances related to owning and operating a business [and] growing a business. Just being an expert in your particular area is not enough.”

“If I’m not going to try to advertise, or try to hand out [business] cards, then I’m just taking a chance hoping for someone to come into the shop,” says Cook. “I come in at 10 [am] every day and leave at six [pm], so my business is doing better than other people’s businesses.” Banks adds that you have to work as a business owner equally as hard as when you worked for someone else.

“That’s where organizations like the Black Chamber or other organizations that provide technical assistance to business are really, really important for entrepreneurs and current business owners to be members of and invest in, because that’s where the resources [are],” explains Hargett.


Next: Tips on how the Black community can help Black-owned businesses thrive.

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