Flint, MI—Two partners have come together to create an online directory of local Black, Indigenous and people of color-owned businesses that will serve as both a resource hub and a connection point for their vendors and consumers. 

The directory, Business Bridge, is being built by the Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance and I’m Building Something Consulting LLC, with the goal of increasing exposure and market access for Flint-area BIPOC businesses.

A more sustainable solution

Ebonie Gipson, founder of I’m Building Something Consulting, created a directory about three years ago in the hope of supporting Black small businesses, which make up 46 percent of the Genesee County’s small businesses according to a 2021 analysis.

“It was on our radar for 2019 to execute in 2020,” Gipson said of that original directory, which she named Entreprebuilder. “Then, of course, the pandemic hit, life flipped upside down—but it also made it even more important how much this tool was needed.”

Gipson explained that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands a Minnesota police officer in 2020, there was a new awareness across the country of Black experiences.

“In my mind, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is great, and I’m glad that the awareness is taking place, but what is a more sustainable solution besides this?” Gipson said.

Ultimately, she launched Entreprebuilder to help people find and support Black businesses in Flint and nearby areas. 

And, she said, it had been working. 

“Community members got a hold of it, started learning about it, passing it along, sharing that information,” Gipson said. Then she got a call from Tyler Rossmaessler, Executive Director of the Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance.

“And we were talking about how we maximize this or create a new tool—one that is bigger than us—but also goes beyond this high point of awareness,” Gipson said.

“We know that there’s a lot of organizations that want to make sure they’re intentional, or being more intentional, with how they’re doing business with minority-owned businesses,” Rossemaessler said about building out the Business Bridge with Gipson. “And this is an avenue to help them in that effort.” 

According to a 2021 Genesee County Small Business Analysis, 83 percent of minority-owned businesses in Genesee County are less than 15 years old.

That study also noted that over half of those businesses are also in their first five years of operation, and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 50 percent of small businesses nationally fail within their first five years.

Which is why creating supports like the Business Bridge is a critical step in supporting the area’s young, BIPOC-owned companies, said Rossmaessler.

“That’s how the idea came,” he said. “It came from what we learned in our data.”

Rossmaessler said that he, like Gipson, had seen more companies reaching out to the Flint & Genesee Group to connect with the county’s minority-owned businesses in 2020 and 2021. So, when the Ruth Mott Foundation offered a $95,000 grant to help support a connective effort, the Economic Alliance and I’m Building Something Consulting were able to invest in a platform to formalize their word-of-mouth directory.

“A phone book would have a hardcopy version…This goes beyond that.”

Tyler Rossmaessler, Executive Director of the Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance

In being asked to describe what the final platform will look like for businesses, vendors, and customers, Rossmaessler said, “A phone book would have a hardcopy version—all these lists of names and contact information. This goes beyond that.”

Rossmaessler explained that Business Bridge will be a more comprehensive, searchable directory, where businesses will have profiles, contact information, and space to describe the whole of their products and services.

“Which means that if they change or update (that information), they have the opportunity to do that. They can evolve as a business and still be in the directory,” he said, later adding that the platform will also support connecting participating businesses to contracting opportunities.

The directory is currently in its first phase of build out, which means getting businesses on-board.

“I signed up because the resource is designed to connect the community with more Black-owned businesses, and that’s something I want to be a part of,” said La’Asia Johnson, founder of Elle Jae Essentials, in an email. 

She said she hopes being part of Business Bridge will help her gain more awareness for her skincare boutique, which will be opening in a new space on June 17, 2022. 

“As the only resource of its kind in our city, I would love for as many people that can benefit from it to know it’s accessible to them,” Johnson said.

An opportunity for equity, and a responsive tool

While Rossmaessler said the Business Bridge will be used mostly as a connection tool between BIPOC-owned business and their vendors and consumers, the directory will also “dovetail” with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s StartUp Space, a statewide online community of small business support organizations, service providers, and localized resources.

“Honestly, in the feedback that I’ve received and I’ve also given, sometimes Black-owned businesses feel like they’re uninformed, or they get knowledge secondhand, or it’s too late,” Gipson said.

She believes that the inclusion of StartUp Space will create equity for BIPOC business owners who have felt left out of local and state entrepreneurial support systems. 

“It’s not based off of referral, they’re plugged right into the resources,” Gipson said. “So that’s one of the things that I’m most excited about, because it does give them access.”

Aside from creating a more equal playing field for BIPOC-owned businesses, StartUp Space is also a buildable resource, which can be retooled to suit an organization’s needs as those needs are realized. 

In example, the Build Institute, which helps Detroit area entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses through classes, resources, and networking opportunities, uses StartUp Space to support strategy and fundraising efforts.

“I can look across the organization and see how many people are participating in certain classes,” said Regina Ann Campbell, President and CEO of Build Institute. “It makes the strategic decisions on what we need to do—and it also helps tremendously, as a nonprofit, our development director to raise money. She’s able to get the data that she needs to put around the narrative in the story on the ‘why’ around the impact.”

Campbell said her organization is just getting into the resource side of the platform, but after using StartUp Space for the past year and a half, she’s a firm believer it can deliver on promised solutions.

“It’s been such a value add to US organizations to use data in a way that informs decisions and demonstrates impact, which allows us to be able to raise more money right and reach more entrepreneurs,” Campbell said.

Rossmaessler said that the Economic Alliance and I’m Building Something Consulting do not have plans to utilize the Business Bridge platform for fundraising or strategy use, as yet.

“It is being designed around our vision to connect minority-owned businesses to local contracting opportunities,” Rossmaessler said.

Interested BIPOC-owned businesses can find more information or sign up for the Business Bridge through this website. The directory is expected to be operational by the end of summer 2022.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....