how-to-succeed-as-a-black-owned-business

How To Succeed As A Black-Owned Business

Black people comprise more than 14 percent of the nation’s population but only 2.3 percent of businesses are Black-owned, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau figures. The most recent American Communities Survey shows that while Black businesses make up approximately 11 percent of all businesses in Illinois, they comprise only two percent of the state’s businesses that employ more than one person.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 20 percent of new businesses fail during the first two years of operation, 45 percent in the first five years, and 65 percent in the first 10 years. Only one-quarter of new businesses make it to 15 years or more.

The numbers indicate that it’s tough for new businesses to succeed, and it’s even tougher if those new businesses are Black-owned.

Those odds don’t seem to deter many Black business owners in Springfield, who are boldly forging ahead with open eyes and positive outlooks as they navigate a capitalist playing field that is decidedly uneven.

“They expect different things from Black businesses.”

Replay Lounge, downtown Springfield

You immediately realize that Replay Lounge is unique the moment you set foot in the downtown Springfield establishment. That’s because the barstools are swingset swings.

“We decided to give customers something different,” said Replay Lounge co-owner Demetrius Hudson. “The atmosphere is more laid-back, people come in to relax and have something to eat or drink.”

Owner Demetrius Hudson by one of Reply Lounge’s signature swingset-type barstools.   “> click to enlarge

Owner Demetrius Hudson by one of Reply Lounge’s signature swingset-type barstools.

Hudson, a Chicago native, moved to Springfield in 1996. He owned and operated the bar and grill, Brille 69, at the Route 66 Center for two years. Hudson was asked to help establish a bar and grill at the current Replay Lounge location, and the property owner soon thereafter asked him to come into the operation as a partner.

Hudson’s main business challenge is convincing customers to come downtown, an issue he shares with other nearby businesses. But once they visit Replay Lounge, customers generally come back.

“Once they taste our food they’ll be convinced because we have some good food,” Hudson said. “We make believers out of people all the time.”

Hudson said he didn’t have any special challenges getting Replay Lounge up and running, but since he’s been in operation, it seems he has had to go the extra mile because of his race.

“People in general, when they find out that it’s a Black business owner they are more skeptical. They expect different things from Black businesses than they expect from someplace else,” Hudson said. “In my own Black community, they expect everything to be almost free. They think that we should give away stuff.”

Hudson said that Black businesses are expected to have better customer service than other similar businesses, and Black business owners put more expectations on themselves than their white counterparts.

“We assume that we can just open up the doors and automatically begin to make money,” Hudson said. “But in six months when we are not making that money, we are struggling and we are in the red, we begin to make decisions that compromise our business. We start changing up our ideas and our plans.”

Hudson had advice for any new business owner, regardless of race.

“Just stick with the primary vision, don’t shy away, hang in there, because that’s how originality starts,” Hudson said. “That’s how most chains get started, and that’s how you become known for a certain thing.

“I am a business with great potential just like any other business,” Hudson added. “I try to stay away from stereotypical stuff.”

“I had to pivot again.”

Tia Mahr, business owner, not-for-profit consultant

Tia Mahr demonstrated an “elevator speech” in, of all places, the elevator at White Oaks Mall.

“We try to teach kids how to start their own business,” Mahr said as the elevator descended. “They need to be able to sell their idea in the time it takes to ride an elevator. You never know when you will have an opportunity to pitch your dream.”

Mahr is a Black woman entrepreneur who has started and continues to operate several businesses. She also shares her experience with other prospective business owners and youth, primarily in Springfield’s Black and brown communities, through her Made Wright not-for-profit organization.

Entrepreneur Tia Mahr inside one of her businesses, Spa Nyne in White Oaks Mall.   “> click to enlarge

Entrepreneur Tia Mahr inside one of her businesses, Spa Nyne in White Oaks Mall.

Mahr’s business journey began in 2012 when she opened Accessories Jewelry Collection, a shop where she made and sold handcrafted jewelry, hair bows, tutus and other items for girls.

“That was a bad business idea, it didn’t work, so I had to pivot,” Mahr said. “Then I started Curvy Closet, a plus-sized retail boutique, but COVID happened and resale clothing wasn’t something that people wanted to buy at the time. So I had to pivot again.”

Next came Nyne, which was originally a spa where Mahr made her own sugar scrubs and detoxes and offered spa services. When that didn’t take off as she thought it would, Mahr pivoted again and turned Nyne into a teen clothing boutique that now operates in White Oaks Mall. She also started her own grant-writing business after she was able to successfully secure a business startup grant for herself.

That led to Made Wright, also headquartered in the mall, where Mahr takes her own entrepreneurial experiences and teaches others.

“Working with youth has always been my passion, and a lot of them want to start a business or go into a trade. And I thought, well, I’m an entrepreneur, who better to help them than me,” Mahr said. “We teach them financial literacy with a hands-on approach and we make learning fun.”

Lack of financial literacy was the main hurdle that Mahr encountered when she first started in business, and she said that issue remains prevalent among Springfield’s Black business owners.

“Sometimes as African American women we don’t learn about credit scores and financial responsibilities. In Black and brown communities, financial education is not as accessible,” Mahr said. “You can go into a bank and try to get a personal loan to fund your dream. When you don’t know about the importance of building your credit, then you don’t understand the process of why you got denied.”

“I had to learn how to start my business on my own,” Mahr said. “I had to start from ground zero and build my way up.”

Mahr is also chair of the Queen’s Table, a women’s entrepreneur social group that meets twice a month. The group combines workshops with social outings. The Queen’s Table women also compare notes about what has and has not worked when starting their business ventures.

“Entrepreneurs are risk-takers,” Mahr said. “It could either go great or it could go bad, but you’ll still have a lesson to learn from what you did.”

Mahr said that persistence is the key, and that any prospective business owner needs to realize that it may take a while to turn a profit.

“Never give up. It gets hard. There are going to be times where you make no money and there are going to be times where you make lots of money,” Mahr said. “There have been times when I opened our store space here in the mall and we made zero dollars, then the next day we made enough to pay the rent for a month.”

Mahr is a strong believer in the power of business to uplift the Black community.

“People always want to put other people in a bubble but when you have your own business you can live outside of that bubble,” Mahr said. “Owning a business is the key to escaping poverty. Try it and if you fail you can always try something else.”

“It gave me more of a will to stand proud.”

Colleen Ikerionwu, owner, First Impressions Daycare

The first impression made upon entering First Impressions Daycare is that the child-care business is a happy place. That’s just the way that owner Colleen Ikerionwu wants it.

“My philosophy is every child deserves to be loved, nurtured and to reach for their dreams and achieve their full potential,” Ikerionwu said as she greeted each child and staff member by name while walking through the business.

Ikerionwu had worked as a police officer and a truant officer but wanted a “happier job,” somewhere she could be with her own young children. Her oldest school-age son went to First Impressions in 2016 and, with twins on the way, Ikerionwu’s desire for a career change seemed to point her toward the day care business. She purchased First Impressions that year.

First Impressions Daycare owner Colleen Ikerionwu with one of her young clients.   “> click to enlarge

First Impressions Daycare owner Colleen Ikerionwu with one of her young clients.

First Impressions may have been a happy place, but running it as a first-time business owner wasn’t easy at first.

“I quickly found out that I had a lot of regulations that I needed to learn,” Ikerionwu said. “I had to go back to school and complete some classes in early childhood because I wasn’t qualified at the time to run my own center. I’ve since completed that training so I can now run it.”

Ikerionwu encountered a few obstacles as the new Black owner of an established business.

“I think we weren’t taken very seriously when we went to certain agencies in order to get the licenses we needed,” Ikerionwu said. “When I first purchased the day care I had a white director who was older than me. When people came in here they would just look right past me and talk to her, and she would have to tell them that I was the owner.

“Our families have been extremely gracious, and I think people have been very accepting of me as a Black owner, but I did have to prove myself,” Ikerionwu said. “It gave me more of a will to stand proud as a Black owner and pave the way for other Black people who want to own businesses.”

Ikerionwu finds herself being a mentor to other Blacks who consider starting or acquiring their own businesses.

“I tell them that it takes hard work, dedication, you have to take your time, and anything is possible,” Ikerionwu said. “It’s smart to start slow and just don’t give up. Grit is the secret.”

First Impressions has quite a few repeat customers, including parents who at one time went to the day care as children themselves. That loyalty is rewarding, but the children themselves give Ikerionwu her greatest joy.

“I knew I loved kids but I didn’t expect to care so much for the kids and staff who are here,” Ikerionwu said. “They’re here sometimes from six weeks to kindergarten, and it’s really hard to say goodbye.”

“Offer a service that allows Black women to feel good about themselves.”

Intertwine Loc Design Hair Studio, Angel Macon and Jenaya Gant

Intertwine Loc Hair Design Studio in Springfield is thriving because it offers something for Black women that they can’t get unless they are willing to travel quite a distance.

“I am the only certified Sisterlocks technician in Springfield and the only one between Chicago and St Louis,” said Angel Macon, who co-owns the business with her daughter, Jenaya Gant. “Only a trained professional can offer this patented system. It’s an interlocking hair process and it is maintained using a specialized tool, and you can only get the tool by taking the class and becoming certified.”

Jenaya Gant and Angel Macon, the co-owners of Intertwine Loc Design Hair Studio.   “> click to enlarge

Jenaya Gant and Angel Macon, the co-owners of Intertwine Loc Design Hair Studio.

Sisterlocks uses a client’s natural hair to create tiny dreadlocks. But instead of relying on a twisting or rolling technique, Sisterlocks are created by using a special tool that builds the locks from the ends of hair to the root.

“A lot of people see our hair and they ask, ‘Who does your hair?’ And we say, ‘Oh, we do our hair,'” Macon said. “Now our work is out in the community and people can see it. Most of our advertising is word of mouth.”

For several years Macon had been getting her own hair styled by a Sisterlocks salon in St. Louis but when that salon owner moved, Macon’s daughter took over her mother’s hair styling in the Sisterlocks fashion. Mother and daughter then decided to investigate the possibility of starting their own Sisterlocks business in Springfield.

Both Macon and Gant had to be professionally trained in the Sisterlocks system, which was done virtually, during the COVID pandemic.

“We had some challenges initially because of COVID. It prevented us from really flourishing when we first gained our training,” Macon said. “Also no one believed that we were Sisterlocks consultants because there aren’t any nearby. The closest ones were in St. Louis and Chicago.”

Since COVID, Intertwine Loc Hair Design Studio has really taken off.

“Our initial goal was to have only like 10 clients, but the Lord saw fit to send 30, and then the first year that doubled” with customers coming from as far away as Indianapolis, Macon said. “Being able to offer a service that allows Black women to feel good about themselves is a blessing. We have clients who have embraced their hair, they never want to go back to relaxing their hair or wearing weaves or wigs.”

Macon feels that Springfield is a welcoming city for Black-owned businesses and there are a lot of opportunities for businesses to expand. She did, however, find it a challenge to get funding to establish her business.

Daughter Jenaya Gant said Sisterlocks customers represent stable, repeat business for the salon since the locks must be retied every four to six weeks due to clients’ natural hair growth. Meanwhile, Gant and her mother are walking advertisements for the business.

“It actually makes me feel very confident when people see my hair and see how long it is,” Gant said. “I say that’s something my mom did right, because she established my Sisterlocks hair.”

“Thank God I had some people in my corner.”

Clemence Ahiable, Creme De La Clem Fitness

Clemence Ahiable has been doing things his own way most of his life, which gave him a rather rocky employment history.

“I’ve tried a little bit of every type of job, and to be honest I’ve been fired from 95 percent of my jobs,” Ahiable said. “Not because I was a terrible worker, but I liked to do things my own way, I march to the beat of a different drummer.”

That different drummer led Ahiable to a personal training class at Lincoln Land Community College, then to L.A. Fitness, then Anthony’s One-on-One Fitness, and finally to a private gym in Rochester. After that gym closed and later reopened following the COVID pandemic, the gym owner asked Ahiable if he’d like to become partners.

“I told him thank you but I had my own idea what I wanted to do,” Ahiable said. “A short time later I got the opportunity to bring this to life.”

Creme De La Clem owner Clemence Ahiable.   Photos by David Blanchette“> click to enlarge

Photos by David Blanchette

Creme De La Clem owner Clemence Ahiable.

“This” is Creme De La Clem Fitness, located in a portion of a large Morton building along Camp Butler Road, where Ahiable shares divided space under the same roof as Outlaw Athletics, a dance, tumbling and cheer academy,

Ahiable obtained most of the fitness equipment from the now-closed gym in Rochester where he worked. Ahiable, who moved to Springfield from Ghana, in West Africa, in 1999, usually does one-on-one and group fitness classes at the business, but plans to open it up to the public this year. He has also written a new book, Your Ultimate Guide to Fitness Success, published through cremedelaclem.gumroad.com.

“I take every opportunity and I learn from every opportunity,” Ahiable said. “For a while I said ‘yes’ to every opportunity that came my way. I believe that was one of the driving forces for why I am here right now.”

Ahiable said as a Black business owner he faced obstacles “every step of the way” while he established Creme De La Clem Fitness, including banks that expressed no interest in lending him startup money. “But thank God I had some people in my corner who believed and invested in what they saw,” he said.

Ahiable encourages other young Black entrepreneurs to follow their dreams like he did, but to do so with their eyes open.

“Plan the work and work the plan. When you have that vision write it down, don’t be too hesitant about it,” Ahiable said. “And make sure it’s a passion, don’t do it just to make money.”

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