After 2020, Black-owned businesses find themselves in new landscape

‘It seems to have awakened corporate America to wanting to do something different,’ one CEO says

Before the pandemic, Black-owned businesses faced distinct and lingering obstacles. Access to capital, insurance availability, bidding on contracts can be challenges to entrepreneurs of all races — but in the struggle to build an enduring legacy, those challenges can be acute for Black employers.

Locally, however, some Black entrepreneurs say they have sensed a change in recent months in interactions and perceptions.

It’s not just local. Some 75 percent of Black business owners reported seeing an increase in business since the beginning of June, according to research conducted to coincide with National Black Business Month last August.

Before the recent attention to Black Lives Matter, Steve Hightower , founder, chief executive and president of Middletown-based Hightowers Petroleum, said he found that his business had been “devalued” when it came time to explore the prospect of going public or selling part of his company.

“That came from specific bankers, and it has been in the marketplace in general,” said Hightower, who has been in the petroleum business since 1981, selling gasoline to automakers such as General Motors and Honda, along with other customers.

But recent months have brought changes.

“It seems to have awakened corporate America to wanting to do something different than what had traditionally been going on” Hightower said.

There seems to be a new corporate awareness of “structural issues” facing Black-owned businesses, coupled with a push to include African-Americans in invitations to do business.

“Post this whole Black-Lives-Matter incident that has happened, the African-American male is now back in the spotlight in terms of getting corporate America’s attention,” Hightower said.

He speaks as a man who has owned his business for close to 40 years.

“Probably 30 of those years were highly challenging in terms of breaking into the industry and being accepted as a legitimate business in the industry and working throughout the country, not just Ohio, and globally,” he said.

He reports a pronounced “adjustment” in how corporate America speaks and how it responds to requests for proposals and requests for business quotations.

But Hightower’s company is just one.

Dwindling ownership

Locally, the Dayton metropolitan area had 11,888 employer businesses in 2017, of which 270 were Black-owned — about 2.3%, according to the most recent Census numbers.

That’s down slightly from the Census estimates in 2012, in which the metro area was estimated to have 11,616 employer businesses, of which 350 were Black-owned — just over 3%.

(The Dayton metro area had 11,842 employer businesses in 2018. The Census said it was not able to provide a number of local Black-owned firms that year, because the estimate “did not meet publication standards, because of high sampling variability, poor response quality, or other concerns about the estimate quality.”)

Nationally, Blacks owned about 124,551 businesses, out of nearly 8 million employer firms, according to Census figures released Jan. 28. That number covers 2018.

Hightower takes nothing for granted and said he does not expect this renewed attention to endure. He has seen periods of focus on African-American challenges wax and wane over the decades.

“Corporate America does not buy ‘Black,’” he said. “They buy services and price.”

Andrea Cooks, who owns RA Cooks Renovations, home renovating business, with her former husband Ronald, said they have seen no great change in business dealings. She said their Moraine business has won access to funding not on the basis of any affirmative action program but through COVID-related programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program.

The bottom line for business is building relationships, she said.

“Once they (customers) know us and once they know the work we do, then doors start to open,” Cooks said.

‘The community has still been very supportive’

Kendric Ellerbe, who owns Enhance U Sports Performance Academy in Beavercreek with his wife Tammie, said he has seen no great change in recent months. Institutions and residents were even-handed before and after the events of last summer, they have found.

“We’ve been treated pretty well by banking institutions; we’ve been treated pretty well by the insurance companies,” said Kendric Ellerbe, an Air Force officer.

“Before the Black Lives movement and after, business has been pretty much the same for us,” said Tammie Ellerbe. “The community has still been very supportive. The business has even grown during the pandemic.”

The academy was closed by the pandemic, along with thousands of other local businesses last March. When the academy opened its doors again in May, eager clients returned on that very first day, Tammie Ellerbe said.

“Our clients were constantly calling us,” she said. “‘Hey, when are you guys going to open?’”

The couple is well aware that racism is real. “But we haven’t experienced that in Beavercreek or in any of our business dealings,” Tammie Ellerbe said.

Do customers tiptoe around certain topics?

“Sometimes you know there are certain conversations not to have,” her husband said. “You may not know how someone feels about it, so our customers don’t comment. We’ll talk about sports, a little bit about politics. I have yet to have a customer come to me to talk about that whole situation or bring it (Black Lives Matters) up in a negative manner.”

Systemic unease: ‘It feels unsafe’

Jason Harrison, owner of Dayton’s Present Tense Fitness, has a small fitness and personal training business. His inventory and supply chain needs aren’t massive, and if he wants to make more money, he simply works with more customers, he said.

But the Oregon District resident feels it’s important to explore not just business problems but more fundamental issues. When he moved to Ohio from Maryland several years ago, he recalls seeing a man in a Kroger store with a vivid and large swastika tattoo on his neck, shopping for oranges with his young daughter.

That was a wake-up moment for him.

Said Harrison: “I think I’ve seen more Confederate flags in Ohio than I did in the Washington, D.C. area.”

“Living in the Miami Valley, it doesn’t feel safe,” he said. “And I don’t say that hyperbolically. But I think the first challenge for a Black business owner in our climate — I would link what we saw with George Floyd with what we saw at the Capitol because they’re all part of the same story.”

Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died last May after being handcuffed and pinned under the knee of a white police officer for longer than nine minutes.

If you look at news stories centering around white supremacy from the last several years — events or rallies in Charlottesville, Va., the Capitol and elsewhere — “You always see people from the Miami Valley traveling to go to these things,” Harrison said.

“Just as a human being operating in the climate, it feels unsafe,” he added.

From a business perspective, he has seen attempts to support Black-owned businesses in person and on social media. He doesn’t denigrate those efforts.

But Harrison said he would challenge people to go beyond hash-tagging and social media posts. “The real work” is to “ask questions” about representation in board rooms, law offices and elsewhere, he believes.

“That’s the time to really show that George Floyd’s life meant something,” Harrison said. “Otherwise, it’s just performative.”

Ongoing challenges

A new poll by the advocacy group Small Business Majority show that many business owners of color have “found it hard to stay solvent” during the pandemic, Black Enterprise magazine reported recently. About 32% have cut employee hours and 24% have shut down, the magazine said.

When COVID-19 shut down auto production for close to six months, Hightower found himself temporarily without a mainstay source of revenue. He said he responded by “digging in and working harder.”

Most employees went remote, and Hightowers Petroleum did not shut down. Instead, he and employees focused on contacting about 200 customers and some 170 suppliers across the nation, making sure they knew the company was still very much in business.

Hightower called that “an aha moment for me.”

“When things get tough, it’s not time to retreat; it’s time to push forward and get aggressive,” he said.

Black History Month

As part of Black History Month, the Dayton Daily News is featuring throughout the month of February the rich history of Black people in the Dayton area. In today’s Local section you will find information on Greene County’s history and in the Business section we kick off a weekly profile on Black-owned businesses.

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