Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The data on Black businesses is no secret, and it should not come as a surprise to many of us: 

• African Americans comprise ~13% of the U.S. population, but own 2.1% of employer businesses, while white people own 82% of employer businesses, comprise 88% of overall sales and control 86.5% of U.S., employment according to the Center for American Progress.

• If Black Americans experienced the same business ownership and success rates as their white counterparts, there would be approximately 860,000 additional Black-owned businesses nationwide employing more than 10 million people.

• Approximately 25% of small businesses fail within the first 18 months. This number is 80% for Black-owned businesses.

• Black owned businesses have been hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as Black business owners declined by 41% between February and April 2020, compared to 17% of white business owners.

While many place the responsibility on banks, private investors and the federal government to provide capital to Black-owned and minority-women-owned businesses for success, my take is that we don’t have an access to capital problem; we have an access to business problem. If we focus on business diversity, our local economy will be transformative and multifaceted for a vibrant workforce and set of innovative entrepreneurs.

Entities like Community Development Financial Institutions and the Small Business Administration exist to provide business owners with assistance, mentorship and access to capital directly and through trusted partners. Other trusted and validated micro-lending organizations exist to provide the same things. 

Here in the city of Charleston, our leaders have re-emphasized Charleston residents’ abilities to access these types of resources, but one thing we must stop doing is praising elected leaders and local government for providing the bare minimum. An incubator is the price of admission. Affordable commercial space being included in the planning and approval process of new development and redevelopment is where we ought to be.

I can count on one hand the number of Black-owned small businesses thriving in our city and have leftovers. That is a stark contrast to the scores of diverse businesses that were owned and operated by Black residents when I was born 40 years ago. Gentrification played a role in this, but given the billions of dollars in development we have seen in that same timeframe, the ecosystem that has prevented, blocked, hindered and shut out Black businesses from starting and thriving must be reversed. 

If Charleston can profit and lead the world in its food and culture in a city uniquely positioned to do so, then surely the contributors and even originators in some cases can partake in the benefit from the booming tourism industry and indirect businesses that exist from it. 

Let me be clear: I’m not necessarily expecting Brooks Motel to still be around — there is an ebb and flow to business. But regardless of what part of the city you grew up in and saw these traditional mom-and-pop stores, restaurants, clothing stores and other professional business services, I didn’t expect us to have to play “Where’s Waldo?” with Black-owned businesses in our city.

If Charleston is to take a step in the right direction to mitigate the issues of access to business in our city, we must be bold in the work of breaking up the monopolistic framework that exists in our major industries such as hospitality/tourism, supply chain/logistics, medical and technology.