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Flint, MI—Starting a small business is rarely easy. Entrepreneurs everywhere face hurdles like building capital, securing space, and understanding margins. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows about half of small businesses will fail within their first five years. About two-thirds will fail in their first two.
But for the many Black entrepreneurs in Flint, which houses 80% of Genesee County’s BIPOC-owned small businesses, those statistics can be even harder to beat.
“Historically, there have been practices in place that prevent, and have prevented, African American entrepreneurs or business owners from being able to be successful,” said Andrew Younger, Executive Director of the Flint & Genesee Chamber.
“Whether it’s being able to move into a certain area or having limited access to capital to grow in the direction that they could or should be able to,” Younger said, “that has some lasting effect.”
According to data from Fundera, a New York-based financial institution, Black business owners receive less financing, less often than their white counterparts, with just 1% of Black business owners being able to obtain a business loan in their first year. Black businesses are also likely to be smaller or “non-employer” firms, meaning many support mechanisms for small businesses, like the Paycheck Protection Program, initially left them out.
Princess Greene, owner of The Gumbo Trap, has come to understand the struggle to secure capital firsthand. She began her Louisiana cooking business in 2018, with the goal of securing a food truck as quickly as possible.
“My mom is going to take out a loan,” Greene said in response to how she will eventually buy her food truck, which she estimates will run her at least $9,000 given what her cousin paid for his.
Greene’s mom said she could not offer all of that $9,000, however, as Greene does not yet have her food manager license — a document acquired via a proctored test, another impediment to her culinary dream.
“But with this pandemic, it’s kind of hard to find (a test option),” Greene said.
Greene began working as a chef at a local fast-food chain three months ago in the hopes of obtaining her licensing with the establishment’s support. She believes that a food manager license will legitimize her business for future capital opportunities.
Previously, Greene was serving her gumbo at The Local Grocer two days a week and at a $600/month fee, she said.
Between that fee, her rent at home, and paying three support staff, Greene’s margins were too low to sustain her business out of The Local Grocer through COVID.
“I just moved in with my sister,” Greene said.
Now Greene keeps her brand alive while cooking in her home kitchen (Thursdays and Fridays, mostly) and serves her food to gumbo fans that line up on the corner of Court and Beecher from 1 p.m. until she runs out.
Greene is still in the early stages of building her business nearly three years in, but she says she’s closing in on her dream of owning a food truck, week by week.
“It’s been a long one,” she said, on a rare day off from both her business and her fast-food job. “But I enjoy it. It’s homemade cooking, so I have to put all my love in it.”
Greene’s buildout experience mirrors parts of the process for another Flint restaurateur, Jeron Dotson, who owns The Poke Bowl with his brother Justin Bush.
Dotson and Bush also began with a dream of bringing their cuisine to Flint via a food truck, but as the pair won pitch competition after pitch competition in 2017, they slowly built capital and, more importantly, they agreed, a network that helped them think beyond the wheels.
“Adrian came to us and was like, ‘No, like, if you want to do a food truck, that’s fine. But that’s not the end goal. Right?'” Dotson said over a near-empty glass at a downtown Flint coffee shop.
Adrian is Adrian Montague of Flint SOUP, whom both Dotson and Bush name as their early mentor.
Montague met the pair when they had nothing but the idea of bringing poke bowls —dishes featuring diced raw fish and rice—to Flint after a trip to California. Soon, Montague connected the brothers to consultants like Harry Blecker at the Michigan Small Business Development Center and Margaret Kato, then with Habitat for Humanity.
The brothers said it was Kato who ultimately helped them into their soon-to-open brick and mortar location on the corner of University Ave and Frost Street.
Dotson and Bush said their success thus far has come from accepting support from these business-versed women and men, realizing when they need help and asking for it often, and one major quality: perseverance.
“The key is perseverance,” said Bush. “Like, honestly, we’ve been in the news, but people don’t see the bad,” he said. “Actually, I won’t even call it bad because it’s not bad, just part of the story.”
Bush and Dotson shared the woes of figuring out where to buy the fish for their bowls (which included rooting through a dumpster to see if they could find a supplier’s label on a discarded box, as well as asking another seafood restaurant, Oceanside Seafood, for help), pivoting their business model through COVID (which meant wholesaling to grocery stores), and the long wait as they work to open their brick-and-mortar business (hopefully this fall).
“There will be no’s and there will be real late nights,” Bush said. “And don’t think there will just be someone there to guide you,” Dotson added. “There is no go-to resource for that.”
Dotson said entrepreneurs really have to work to build a network and earn capital, something a June 2021 Genesee County Small Business Analysis corroborated.
“A strong foundation of resources, training, funding and support are needed for business owners in their first few years of operation to increase the number of businesses that are building long-term opportunity and wealth in the region,” the analysis notes on page 16. “This is particularly true in Flint, where we see the highest density of BIPOC owned businesses and BIPOC residents.”
That analysis also noted that net income for personal care businesses was down 100% last year—a difficulty La’Asia Johnson, owner of local skincare boutique Elle Jae Essentials, might have felt more steeply had she not sought business help before the pandemic.
“I hired a business coach,” Johnson said of her early days.
The young entrepreneur started her business four years ago as a hobby, realizing that Flint did not have options for those looking for natural, customizable skincare.
“I really just wanted something for myself that was healthy, smelled good, and actually worked,” she said, now sitting in her cheery, yellow boutique near the intersection of Flushing and Ballenger.
“And me being the person I am,” Johnson said, “I wanted to educate other people on what I found. I wanted them to know how easy it was to transition to different products.”
But Johnson said that wasn’t as easy as she’d hoped, her biggest hurdle being “a lack of understanding on how to grow and scale the business.” So she hired Ebonie Gipson of I’m Building Something Consulting.
“Ebonie definitely helped me to set the foundation of my business and helped me to grow into where it is today,” Johnson said, adding that her Facebook community, which she calls “The Garden,” has been a major supporting mechanism since then.
“They’re kind of like silent business partners,” she said, smiling.
Thanks to her various channels of support, Johnson said, after four years of building and hiring team of three employees, Elle Jae Essentials will be hosting a grand opening party on Saturday, September 4.
For the opening party, Johnson has brought together the other businesses in her new building—Notoriety Barber and Beauty Shop and Glamour Studios—to help her host, leveraging Flint’s business community while sharing the success of her own.
“This is just our little corner of magic,” Johnson said. “I found that other business owners here in Flint, specifically, have been open to answering anything, have been open to encouraging me and helping me to grow my business.”
Though many of Flint’s Black entrepreneurs have found support in their surrounding community, Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist, who jokes about being “a recovering entrepreneur” himself, said there are state-level initiatives to help support minority businesses owners, too.
“The challenges that entrepreneurs face broadly are even more heightened for Black entrepreneurs often,” Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said, challenges that have been heightened by the pandemic. “So we’ve had to put together state programs to support those entrepreneurs.”
Lt. Governor Gilchrist mentioned programs, like the Michigan Small Business Survival Grant Program, created to help the Black-owned businesses that didn’t qualify for PPP loans because they had under 9 employees (relevant to all of the businesses mentioned above).
“For us, this is about creating comprehensive opportunity for growth coming forward,” Gilchrist said of his administration, a sentiment he echoed during a recent visit for his ‘Thriving Cities’ tour.
“I know that Black folks, we’ve got plenty of ideas,” the Lieutenant Governor said. “And as folks are emerging from the pandemic, we can actually have more Black entrepreneurs… who will be better supported and better capitalized and have better access to resources and better access to training for themselves and the people who they may hire.”