Table of Contents
- 1 The New Golden Age: What’s it like being a Black entrepreneur today
- 2 We’ve come this far: Reflections on the legacy of Black entrepreneurship
- 3 The path ahead is full of opportunity
In 2020, a racial reckoning in the US led to a sociopolitical shift.
In 2021, 100 years after the bombing of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, Black-owned businesses saw a rise in interest and support. From February 2020 to August 2021, the number of Black business owners in the US increased by 38%, making Black Americans the fastest-rising class of entrepreneurs in the country. Since then, the increase in support has slowed, and the capital promised to Black entrepreneurs has only trickled in.
What’s left, Black entrepreneurs say, is a community once again trying to build a fruitful future as their desires for equality put further pressure on the systems designed to hold them back. This time, many believe there’s hope that the systems won’t win.
Insider spoke with 29 Black business owners to gather their thoughts on the past and future of Black entrepreneurship and how those legacies impact our culture today.
The quotes used in this story have been edited for clarity and brevity.
The New Golden Age: What’s it like being a Black entrepreneur today
The early 1900s in America hearkens to flapper dresses and dapper suits; the proliferation of jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. With this artistic explosion came a surge in Black entrepreneurship known as the Golden Age of Black Business. Just like today, mom-and-pop shops, beauty brands, and large institutions opened throughout the nation.
Modern Black entrepreneurs say the murder of George Floyd led to a surge in support for their businesses — but also revealed how many problems persist after a century of attempting economic gains.
‘Once the media attention died down, so did some of the support’
“After the death of George Floyd, I saw a dramatic increase in media, funding, mentorship, and partnership opportunities. The increased access allowed me to learn the power of intentionality and pursue opportunities that aligned with Miss EmpowHer’s long-term goals. It was refreshing to see companies and stakeholders finally investing their time and capital into Black entrepreneurship.” —Caitlyn Kumi, 22, founder of Miss EmpowHer, Washington, DC
“For most entrepreneurs, early-stage capital is sourced from personal networks. Unfortunately, the majority of early-stage Black entrepreneurs don’t have access to them. I’m optimistic that the momentum gathered over the past 18 months will help to address these challenges. Following the George Floyd tragedy, I’m gradually seeing early-stage Black entrepreneurs obtain the necessary capital needed to execute their visions and fairly compete in today’s market. And I believe that the success of these entrepreneurs will serve as the foundational capital to support and nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs from our community.”
—Angel Cornelius, 62, founder and CEO of Maison 276, New York
“Support in Black-owned businesses has dipped because it was heightened around the George Floyd incident — once the media attention died down, so did some of the support. Lack of access to capital has been such an issue for Black businesses for so long that many Black business owners don’t put much stock into expectations for ongoing support. However, that keeps Black business owners from reaching the heights of success we know are achievable.” —George Acheampong, 34, CEO and founder of Melanin Money, Charlotte, North Carolina
‘Our problems are not front and center in the mainstream media unless a tragic event happens’
“Since George Floyd, I have seen an increase in access to both capital and opportunities. However, I haven’t seen an increase in funding and opportunities for Black founders that haven’t spent years building networks as I did. The industry is more aware that only 1% of VC funding goes to Black founders a year. However, the industry has not taken meaningful steps to significantly increase that percentage. Our problems are not front and center in the mainstream media unless a tragic event happens.” —Vernon Coleman, 25, CEO and cofounder of Realtime, Atlanta
“I don’t think the uptick in interest and support was natural or genuine in the first place, and really support probably died off because it’s hard to keep up with faking the funk. We talk about people having ‘pandemic fatigue,’ but ‘ally fatigue‘ is just as prevalent. People running to support Black businesses were born out of performing allyship. It wasn’t meant to last because inevitably another event that fits the progressive agenda would come along, grab media attention, and people would move on to the next thing.” —Rachel “Rocky J” Pilgrim, 24, CEO and founder of The Land of Milk & Honey Apothecary, Westchester, New York
“There was definitely a noticeable surge of interest in my business following the death of George Floyd. One of the first things that caught my attention was a dramatic increase in my Instagram followers. People were starting to prioritize supporting Black-owned businesses, and a lot of lists of Black artists started being compiled both on social media and in print.” —Danielle Fennoy, 44, CEO and founder of Revamp Interior Design, New York
‘I believe Black causes were able to gain an increased awareness during the pandemic’
“The George Floyd situation was definitely a sad moment in history, but it opened up many doors and funding for Black creatives. It placed accountability on brands to put their corporate dollars where their mouths were and realize that posting a black square on Instagram wasn’t enough. Because of this, brands that previously said no were now willing to work with me and pay me and my clients our worth.” —Jessica Chinyelu, 34, CEO and founder of The Sponsorship Lady, Dallas
“Even though more customers are still seeking out Black-owned businesses, many of those businesses are still facing disproportionate challenges caused by the pandemic. I believe Black causes were able to gain an increased awareness during the pandemic. People may have felt that contributing to those causes instead of possessing material items was more important. Black brands that had both a cause and a viable service or good were able to excel.” —Zede’Kiah Loky, 32, founder of Blkburd Genes, Los Angeles
“While some companies are indeed committing time and resources to level the playing field for Black businesses and prioritizing Black entrepreneurs, #BlackLivesMatter is more often a marketing tool to gain social capital. Larger companies and VCs seem to be light-years away from grasping the importance of financially propelling Black businesses. I feel like Black entrepreneurs are now competing against one another to be the ‘chosen one’ for capital. As a Black woman, it’s disempowering to feel as though institutions are doing your business a favor.” —Vel Mensah, 33, CEO and founder of TablePop, Burlington, New Jersey
We’ve come this far: Reflections on the legacy of Black entrepreneurship
In 1919, Madam C.J. Walker became the first Black millionaire in the US. In 2001, Robert F. Johnson became America’s first Black billionaire. Today, there are nine Black billionaires in the US, including Rihanna, Robert F. Smith, and Oprah Winfrey. Though this number is woefully low, the impact of these individuals speaks to the intangible currency of Black culture.
‘They all didn’t have many resources at the beginning of their careers’
“The Black entrepreneurs of New Orleans, even those in my own family, had a big influence on my decision to pursue entrepreneurship. For example, my ancestor Murray J. Henderson was one of the first Black funeral-home owners in New Orleans. His daughter and my grandmother’s cousin, Erma Gibbs, was the first Black woman to receive her license as a funeral director in New Orleans. She ran the funeral home after her father’s death for many years until her death.” —Shantrelle P. Lewis, 43, cofounder of Shoppe Black, Philadelphia
“I admire a few Black entrepreneurs such as Nipsey Hussle, Jay-Z, Oprah, Master P, and Bob Johnson. They all didn’t have many resources at the beginning of their careers but created a model to diversify their portfolio to build an empire. Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and my childhood mentor, former NFL player Roynell Young, had an emphasis on self-reliance that played a huge role in my desire to be an entrepreneur and not work for someone else.” —Jeremy Peaches, 29, founder and CEO of Fresh Life Organic, Houston
“I established my company, Influence Entertainment, 27 years ago. There were two entrepreneurs in particular who I was inspired by and who have supported me over the years. One is broadcast maven Cathy Hughes, chair of the board of Urban One, the media empire she founded more than 40 years ago. She is the first Black woman to head a media company that is publicly traded on a US stock exchange. The other entrepreneur is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Kenny Gamble, a co-architect with his partner, Leon Huff, of ‘the Sound of Philadelphia.'” —Dyana Williams, 67, founder of Influence Entertainment, Philadelphia
‘Harriet Tubman was an entrepreneur’
“Madam C.J. Walker is the epitome of Black entrepreneurship. To see a Black woman organize and succeed as an entrepreneur during the early 1900s despite the glaring racial injustices is nothing short of inspiring. Whatever challenges we face as Black women business owners pale in comparison to these trailblazers on whose shoulders we stand.” —Dr. De Andrea Moore, 37, and Dr. Amanda Kennedy, 42, founders of Well Lake Specialty Pharmacy, Bellaire, Texas
“Historically, I think folks don’t know Harriet Tubman was an entrepreneur. She had a brick-making business and was teaching escapees how to start their own businesses so they wouldn’t return to domestic servitude.” —Jeannine A. Cook, 38, owner of Harriett’s Bookshop and Ida’s Bookshop, Philadelphia
“Spike Lee and Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs are two creatives in business who inspired me to pursue entrepreneurship. I grew up loving both music and film. In the early stages of their careers, I watched both create their style and, ultimately, their own freedom.” —Kalonji A. Gilchrist, 46, owner of Khari Creative, Montgomery, Alabama
“In high school, I was enthralled with Master P and his whole approach to the No Limit record label. He did everything in-house, including producing the beats, recruiting rappers, and overseeing graphic design. Then he pivoted into movies. I also look up to Tyler Perry and how he bet on himself time and time again; he was homeless and eventually got a deal with Lionsgate and sold $1 billion in tickets.”
—Kevin Fredericks, 38, founder and CEO of KevOnStage Studios, Los Angeles
“Lewis Latimer was a prolific inventor and secured eight patents between 1874 and 1910 for improvements to air-conditioning, toilet systems, lighting, and elevators. His inventions and discoveries contribute to the quality of life we enjoy today, but he never received attribution or credit for many of them. Latimer’s persistence with uncovering opportunities was unmatched for his time.” —Anthony Oni, 41, Atlanta founder of Cloverly and Managing Partner of the Elevate Future Fund
“My mom, Ima Jo, is one of my greatest inspirations. In 1955 she opened a hair salon in Cleveland, a social touchpoint where Black women were employed, pampered, and empowered. Here’s a woman who, at the age of 30, decided to start her own business with eight kids. I credit my dad for encouraging her to transition into entrepreneurship. She was working at the post office, which at the time was a great job — one of the best you could get — and my father supported her dream of becoming a business owner. My parents nurtured an entrepreneurial spirit in our home. While she never reached Madame C.J. Walker’s levels of notoriety, my mother was successful in her own right.” —George R. N’Namdi, 75, gallery owner of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit
“I was inspired by Dr. A.G. Gaston, who overcame racial segregation in the Deep South to become Alabama’s first Black millionaire. He’s credited with applying the concept of vertical integration as a business model and generating tremendous profits for his companies. He also utilized entrepreneurship to deal with social issues that plagued America’s most thoroughly segregated city, Birmingham, Alabama, and single-handedly established a Black middle class in Birmingham.” —Nicholas M. Perkins, 41, founder of Perkins Management Services and CEO of Fuddruckers, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Houston, Texas
“I naturally gravitate towards sports because I’m such a huge fan — Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Serena Williams are favorites. On the artistic side, my inspiration has come from content producers such as Tyler Perry, Oprah, Spike Lee, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé. They all represent excellence in their fields, and I aspire to reach excellence in photography.” —Michael Carson, 43, founder of MCarson Photography, Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia
The path ahead is full of opportunity
The rise of Black businesses is accompanied by a grander hope for the future. Mentorship, investment, and a change in perspective can radically shift the landscape of industries — making way for more Black growth.
‘We’d like to see changes in how we identify and groom Black entrepreneurs’
“I want the culture to shift in ways that don’t constantly promote wasteful spending. We’re influenced by what we see, so we all want the cheap indicators of what we think wealth looks like: a chain, a car, Champagne in the club, etc. The richest people I know don’t go to clubs or wear loud jewelry. I want the younger Black artists coming out to have a different view of what success is.” —Brent Faiyaz, 26, founder of Lost Kids, Los Angeles
“We believe that more pro bono services from accountants, attorneys, marketing agencies, and other professionals would help facilitate the growth of Black designers over the next five years. Successful Black businesses can be a way to close the racial wealth gap and achieve economic justice. We’d also like to see changes in how we identify and groom Black entrepreneurs. We believe that one way to do that is to invest in and empower people whose voices and ideas are typically overlooked, like our youth, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, the incarcerated, and many more.” —Evonne Opoku, 34, and Erika Opoku, 29, founders of Afrothreads, Baltimore
‘We will only rise by lifting each other’
“I would love to see more Black creatives utilize videos in their growth strategy. Video is the fastest way to grab the attention of your audience. Black entrepreneurs should also continue to shoot for the stars and make it their responsibility to support other Black entrepreneurs, because we will only rise by lifting each other.” —Emmanuel Boakye-Appiah, 28, founder of Kwame Blue, Boston
“I would like to see way more Black graphic designers at the forefront. Black people have largely contributed to American culture, especially with design, and that needs to be held in the highest regard. I want to see more Black creatives and entrepreneurial role models so other young Black designers know there is space for them and thriving in this industry is possible.” —Kasmir Jones, 25, founder of The Future Is Black Owned, Baltimore
“I think it’s important to give people opportunities they may not be ready for but can grow into. I’ve encountered so many people who have the desire but don’t have the confidence to pursue the things they want wholeheartedly. I think mentorship and support can result in a seismic shift. I personally collaborate, and there’s nothing more exciting than helping shape a curious mind and then working together. I think work should be a context to explore, learn, and take creative risks. I believe we should be investing in providing people with effective skill sets over valuing returns, because it makes a difference in the reception of the project and the work.” —Emmanuel Olunkwa, 28, founder of E&Ko. and November magazine, New York
“We would like to see Black designers free their mind from any constructs and restraints, even the ones we’ve created for ourselves. We want Black people to feel what it’s like to just be human without anything holding them back — having all the access, being imaginative, and using their power to empower themselves and not to disempower. We once covered all nations and all of the lands, and we need to get that power back.” —Pia Davis, 32, and Autumn Randolph, 30, designers of No Sesso, Los Angeles