THURSDAY, MAY 15, 2014|
At the 2014 TEDx Grand Rapids conference last Wednesday, Maggie Anderson, author of “Our Black Year” and founder of The Empowerment Experiment, delivered a compelling talk on the economic disparities faced by Black-owned businesses across the country. As her family attempted to buy exclusively from Black-owned businesses for an entire year,she recounted walking blocks in Chicago before finding a Black-owned business, despite searching in predominantly African American neighborhoods. And while Grand Rapids faces similar challenges due to growing economic and educational disparities, one organization is striving to call attention to the thriving Black-owned business community.
The Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB), a start-up economic development company focusing on the African American business community, recently launched its #30 Days 30 Dollars Challenge. The challenge aims to promote Black-owned businesses across the city and increase capital flow to the communities they are located in.
“The goal is to get 300 residents for the next three months to spend $30 dollars per month at Black-owned businesses in order to shift $27,000 back into those communities of color,” says Jamiel Robinson, founder of GRABB. “The motivation is to revitalize and develop impoverished neighborhoods suffering from high unemployment and low high school graduation rates in communities of color.”
This campaign is the third of its kind launched by GRABB. According to Robinson, the first two challenges collected 20 to 30 pledges each. Halfway through the month of May, the third challenge has already collected over 100 pledges. An initial challenge for this initiative was locating Black-owned businesses in the area. To help foster awareness about these businesses, GRABB compiled a database of Black-owned businesses, ranging from retail and eateries to automotive repair and media.
“For everybody, the #30 Days to 30 Dollars campaign is making the community at large aware of the robust African American business community that is present here in Grand Rapids,” says Jonathan Jelks, communications director for GRABB. “I think prior to this campaign, a lot of people weren’t familiar with these businesses and had no understanding that we have several businesses that are thriving.”
Throughout the course of these challenges, business owners have experienced an increase in customer attention and across social platforms. According to Malamiah Juice Bar owner Jermale Eddie, GRABB’s initiatives have created an exponential growth in his customer base.
“When they [GRABB] did this the last time we had quite a few new customers and some of those customers that came during that time have remained loyal and not only that, but they are bringing friends,” says Eddie.
Eddie, whose entrepreneurial spirit led him to create a health and community-minded juice bar in the Downtown Market, believes that the African American culture has an inherent community-focused attitude.
“I’m the first to admit that I haven’t done anything on my own,” says Eddie. “There have not only been people to encourage me, but also share their journey [as business owners]. For us our culture is community.”
This kind of inclusiveness and support that has permeated the growing Black business community encourages new business owners to develop innovative ideas. Corey Davis, owner of Daddy Pete’s BBQ, saw a void in “low and slow” style barbeque in Grand Rapids and decided to jump at the opportunity. He also saw the importance of mobility for his business and developed it into a food truck. Entrepreneurs like Davis hope to create a legacy of highly successful Black business ownership through innovation and creativity.
“It [the campaign] shows that the African-American business community is growing and that there are entrepreneurs that can flourish there,” says Davis. “It’s not just wealthy families, but there can be multi-million dollar African-American businesses.”
As the community of Black-owned businesses surges forward, GRABB hopes to dramatically increase neighborhood revitalization for Grand Rapids’ communities of color. These neighborhoods often host the city’s highest rates of unemployment and poverty and lowest high school graduation rates. According to Robinson and a study conducted by Local First, $13 million dollars of retail “leakage” leaves the neighborhoods from Wealthy to Burton Street annually, from dining out alone. By creating more Black-owned businesses, GRABB hopes to slow that leakage, build wealth and strengthen these communities.
Some feel that the initiative goes beyond bringing awareness and capital to local Black-owned businesses and provides hope for the community’s burgeoning entrepreneurs and business owners. Anderson’s research shows that dollars spent in the African-American economy stay within the community for an average of six hours, compared to the week or more a dollar stays within predominately Latino, Asian and White communities. For the African-American community, this means potential business leaders and especially youth lack exposure to business owners within their community.
“There is so much talent in the Black community and so many ideas on how to make things better,” says Eddie. “We have had to create our own way, so to speak. Often times we have to make things better for us, for the next generation. It [the challenge] is a way to show, teach and lead youth in terms of possibilities, work ethic and employment.”
Beyond working to further the Black-owned businesses, the campaign is striving to increase collaboration between all facets of the business community, across both race and industry.
“I think we need to continue to have conversations about diversity in the business community,” says Jelks. “The first step is to create awareness about what everyone in the business community is doing. I don’t think it is restricted to a race thing; people in the tech sector don’t talk to enough to people who are in the housing industry. Grand Rapids is a city of silos and this campaign is working to remedy that.”
Eddie also believes in the power and perseverance of Black-owned business owners to inspire future entrepreneurs and bolster the vibrancy of the city.
“I think Black-owned businesses are vital to Grand Rapids. We are all working together as a whole and strengthening our community in its entirety,” says Eddie. “As a black business owner, it’s not so much about getting rich, it’s more so about being a face of what it means to step out in faith, succeed and show other people how to do it too.”