How American history has shaped the present reality for Black-owned businesses

Black Businesses

In honor of the Juneteenth holiday, we sat down with Mandy Bowman, Founder and CEO of Official Black Wall Street about her “why” and how her business increases exposure for Black-owned businesses. Read below for her story as an entrepreneur with a business that seeks to uplift and empower other Black entrepreneurs.

Q : Your business name has historical relevance, what’s the story? How did you come to use this name to define your brand?

A : Official Black Wall Street, I decided on that name because after graduating college I read a book called Riot & Remembrance by James S. Hirsch and in it he told the story of a very prosperous Black community called Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was nicknamed Black Wall Street because it was a place where Black-owned businesses thrived. They had everything. Movie theatres, shops, hotels-they were some of our first Black American millionaires and it was all burned to the ground. The former prosperity of Greenwood really reminded me a lot of my own community in Brooklyn, New York and how it had been forcibly changed. Brooklyn also used to be a neighborhood of African Americans and there were tons of mom and pop shops everywhere. Black Wall Street came under attack in a race massacre in 1921 and was ultimately destroyed during this time. It was known as the red summer. Since that day it has not been the same. We also haven’t seen many other neighborhoods that could replicate its success, so it really inspired me to try and recreate that kind of prominence in my old neighborhood before gentrification pushed a lot of Black-owned businesses out.

Q : What pulled you from the research of Black Wall Street and seeing its parallels to your own neighborhood led you to the creation of OBWS?

A : As mentioned, I’m from Brooklyn; Bed-Stuy specifically and it has always been a predominantly Black neighborhood. Once gentrification set in, a lot of Black-owned businesses fell. I remember being back in my neighborhood post grad and seeing the businesses I’d grown up around closed down due to competition from another Starbucks, Target, or other big corporations. This was all during the time when Trayvon Martin was murdered and the protests in Ferguson because of Michael Brown. OBWS really gave me a sense of purpose. It made me feel like I was doing something, you know? Something to move us forward. During that time, I just remember feeling extremely helpless and hopeless watching everything happen and feeling like there was nothing I could do to help bring about justice. Working on OBWS and promoting Black-owned businesses, and spreading the word about its importance made me feel like I was doing something.

Q : Why do you think this business model is important? How does it drive your “why” and how is it still relevant today?

A : When I first started doing this, I did a lot of research initially by just talking to business owners. And from there I found some stats that were extremely alarming. When it comes to starting a business, it is simply harder for Black entrepreneurs to grow and get access to opportunities. For example, the Washington Post reported on a study conducted by a few prominent universities that Black entrepreneurs are rejected for loans at a higher rate despite being equally qualified. If by some miracle they are approved their interest rate is 32% higher than that of their White counterparts. Less than 1% of VC funding goes to entrepreneurs of color. There were just all of these instances that showed when it comes to being a Black entrepreneur there are so many different hoops that we have to jump through. There are so many different challenges that Black business owners face in terms of a lack of resources and a lack of funding. There was even a story in NPR about a Black-owned business in St. Louis named Freddie Lee’s Gourmet Sauces where they earned six figures in reported revenues for multiple years, had a good credit score and were still struggling to be approved for loans. Lenders just didn’t trust them because they were Black-owned. When you look at stories like that and pair it with nationwide statistics for loans and business funding in general it definitely makes it clear that we need to support Black-owned businesses as much as we can because we’re not getting that support from other institutions.

Q : Given that we are coming up on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, why do you think it is an important marker in our history? Do you think that it has any connection to your business and the historical relevance as part of the creation of Official Black Wall Street?

A : Definitely. I think there is a major significance. One thing I love about where we are now is that more people are becoming aware of Juneteenth. People are informing themselves about Black history, American history and the importance that this holiday has to us in the story of our freedom. For me, when it comes to the connection to Black Wall Street I feel like it shows our resilience as a people. The fact that we can now discuss celebrating our freedom and you compare that with what the Greenwood neighborhood was able to accomplish less than 60 years after emancipation- it speaks to our resilience and the immense capacity we have for creation and prosperity.

Q : Given the statistics that you referenced and people’s new found awareness of Juneteenth, what do you think the future of business looks like for Black entrepreneurs?

A : The increase in awareness of Black businesses just in the past couple of weeks has been insane. There have been so many large corporations that are now putting out different messages, resources, and programs out there in support of Black-owned businesses. I’ve just seen this outpouring of support not just in my community but from outside of the Black community that are finally beginning to understand why it’s so important that we support Black-owned businesses, so I do feel that things are shifting in the right direction. I’m hopeful that we are getting to a place where Black business owners won’t have to face the same issues down the road when it comes to seeking capital or loans in order to grow. Beyond that, I think businesses in general will have to make changes when it comes to their own hiring practices and overall company culture by making sure that people within the organization feel safe and valued outside of this moment. Employees need to feel that companies aren’t just publicly saying that we support this movement but that they also see it reflected in the actions those companies take. I am definitely hopeful that everything that has been happening is moving us into a new era where people are more aware of the different issues that Black people and Black business owners face and work toward making changes in the areas that they can.

Q : Are there any final thoughts that you’d like to communicate to our network?

A : Yes! I think it is important that people know the different challenges that Black entrepreneurs face and supporting us is not just something to do as a reaction to whatever horrible thing happened to Black people in the media that day. I feel like there are a lot of people, who are even allies that are using this as a means to protest and in some ways it is a protest, but supporting Black-owned businesses should be a lifestyle change. We have faced issues of disenfranchisement for centuries. Black businesses need your support year round because we often aren’t getting it elsewhere. Make it a conscious decision to support these businesses in the same way that we aim to support small businesses or veteran-owned businesses. Make that same effort every day.