At the coronavirus pandemic’s onset, businesses across the country were adversely affected. And it hit some people much harder than others.
A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that 41% of Black-owned businesses across the country permanently shut their doors between February and April, while only about 17% of white businesses shuttered. As Black business owners worked to find their footing amid pandemic challenges, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis polce in late May incited worldwide protests and a reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement across the country.
A whirlwind of support for Black-owned businesses ensued, but has this wave continued as we near the end of the year? We talked to three business owners to find out.
Christina Funke Tegbe, founder of African beauty brand 54 Thrones, told HuffPost that her business saw a 2,500% increase in site traffic in June. Even as studies show the support of the Black Lives Matter movement has declined since then, 54 Thrones has maintained its momentum, even making Oprah’s 2020 Favorite Things list.
“This time last year, not many people knew of 54 Thrones,” Funke Tegbe said.
It’s not lost on the beauty founder that this new spotlight is due to tragedy.
“The murder of George Floyd was the catalyst behind all of this [and] a big part of why some people ever found out about Black-owned brands like mine,” she said. “Sadly, it took this tragedy for the world to begin considering us. The result is brand awareness, press, visibility, orders and opportunities, but it’s still very bittersweet, and the work is not done.”
As sales and brand awareness surged, Tegbe and her team took it in stride. “My team expanded, buckled down and was up for the challenge,” she said. “June was incredible — our story and products were shared with people from all over the world,” she said.
Even with the new eyes on her brand, Tegbe’s goal remains the same. “We will continue to share the story and importance of Africa, and its sacred beauty rituals, by celebrating the people behind them and supporting our partners through trade and empowerment,” she said.
Support is essential for any business to thrive, and Tegbe wants the world to support Black business as they would any other brand. “Using your buying power to repeatedly support Black-owned businesses is important,” she said. “When you find a Black-owned brand that you like, treat it just as you would any other brand that you like [and] become a loyal customer.”
Sherri McMullen, founder of the eponymous California-based luxury retail store McMullen, closed her doors in March as stay-at-home orders rolled out. In response, “We had to pivot and focus on e-commerce,” she told HuffPost. The luxury retailer launched “goodie boxes” filled with hand-selected pieces for clients to try on at home.
McMullen’s e-commerce business has grown by 405% from 2019. As the holiday season commences, the company is off to a strong start, and their sales have increased 10% month over month since reopening their Oakland and Palo Alto stores in August. “As a company, we are having a stronger November compared to last year and [it] feels like we are recovering. It will take time, I know, but I am optimistic,” she said.
Like many Black-owned businesses, McMullen felt the June surge. “We saw an increase in interest in Black-owned brands that we have always supported,” McMullen said.
The retailer, who has long supported Black designers like Nigerian fashion designer Lisa Folawiyo, knitwear designer Aisling Camps and jewelry designer Jameel Mohammed of Khiry, added, “What I saw was something positive coming out of a very painful time. I saw a level of awareness and support I had never seen before.”
As she looks to the future, she said she hopes that consumers will continue to shop small and back Black businesses. “It’s important to support brands that align with your own personal values and local businesses, especially during this time when small businesses are being impacted the most,” she said.
Gaining access to capital has been a long time struggle for many Black businesses, and the gap has only gotten larger due to COVID-19, with only 20% of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans allocated in areas of the country with the highest number of Black businesses. This is an issue McMullen wants addressed.
“I would like to see more Black businesses getting funding, either through banks with low-interest loans, grants, or VC funding,” she said. “This is a way for systemic change to happen.”
Blair Armstrong, the founder of the skin care brand Gilded Body, has seen a lasting impact since June, with her sales up 4,400% compared with this time last year. However, the overnight 2,200% growth in business in June was both a gift and an overwhelming experience. As a then one-person operation, the visibility was welcomed, but sustaining the growth at the beginning was tough.
“It felt like a rogue wave that was going to take me under,” Armstrong told HuffPost. “There were days when I felt like, I don’t want this business anymore, but I kept telling myself, just take it one day at a time.”
Like many small businesses, Armstrong said she didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the sales surge, especially with COVID-19 shipping delays. “Small businesses operate lean,” she said. “I forecast what I anticipate based on trends, previous sales and growth.”
Once everything on her site was sold out, replenishing inventory became an additional challenge. “I placed orders for inventory before [the influx of business], but the shipping channels were on hold [due to COVID-19].”
Even with these bumps in the road, Armstrong said the unexpected wave of support validated her brand’s vision. It gave her “proof of concept and visibility [and] I now have a customer base that supports everything I release and cheers me on.”
Gilded Body has also caught the eye of Allure magazine ― the brand’s marble body brush won a coveted 2020 Allure Best of Beauty Award, which Armstong shared was, “no small feat for a small, Black-owned, self-funded business.”
With a thriving business, Armstrong now has the ability to invest in a team. “I’ve been able to afford to hire my team, and that’s really been good — during COVID — to be able to employ talented people to help execute my vision,” she said. “I feel like I have been tempered by fires of adversity, and I have come through radiant.”
Armstrong offered one piece of advice for consumers who want to help small, Black-owned businesses. “Don’t just make it a one-off,” she said. “Swap out one mainstream thing with something from a small business. That’s a way to make real and meaningful change.”