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For Black business owners, identity intertwines with their mission in complex ways

Five Points Denver
Posted at 12:55 PM, Feb 10, 2022

DENVER — Throughout our lives, we face major choices about our careers: where we should live, how our jobs will impact our families, which company would be best to work for – or, whether we should start our own?

At this moment in our history, more Black Americans are investing in themselves and their own ideas for businesses. And while it’s partially about money, here are several voices about how business often comes with other questions:

Jeffrey Blair | Owner, EyeSeeMe Bookstore, University City, Mo.

“Owning a Black-owned business in 2022 is very challenging, but at the same time very rewarding.

"Myself and my wife, Pamela, opened up the store in 2015, and it was to address an issue. There’s a gap in the bookstore industry in really having enough titles and books that reflect people of color, and especially children. We decided to open up the bookstore to fill that gap: making sure that all children can see themselves in the books that they read.

“University City is the crossroads [between the more urban and suburban parts of St. Louis]. We wanted to make sure African-American parents had a resource, but we also wanted to make sure non-African-American parents could expose their children to diverse literature. That’s very deliberate. We’re right here at the crossroads, and I think our customer base sort of reflects that.

“We saw very early on that when our children didn’t see themselves in certain things, they began to draw false conclusions about themselves. So many times, we have grandparents or parents that come in here literally crying, because they feel like, ‘Wow – a place that I can come, and every title I see reflects me.’ It’s very hard to describe.

“It’s a bookstore, so you know, margins are not really super-great. Opening up a brick-and-mortar bookstore during this time was crazy. But we felt the issue we were addressing was so important we had to give it a try. We hear that, and it gives us the fuel to keep going. Just how trees hold the dirt together, I think businesses in the community hold the community together. So, I think it’s of the utmost importance that we were here."

Fathima Dickerson | Co-Owner, Welton Street Cafe, Denver, Co.

“I love the city of Denver. We’re in Five Points. This is a historically Black district. When people come here, they’re looking for Black businesses in particular. And then, Black people are looking for Black places.

“Welton Street Café is food for the soul. We have everything that’s fried: fried chicken, fried okra, greens, hams, mac-and-cheese—it’s a hearty eat. The neighborhood has shifted, and so that Black identity, that Black culture, is very scarce, and it’s like holding on at the thread. I’m 34 years old. I have seen the entire neighborhood just … change.

"Running a Black-owned business in 2022, we’re in a space where people are expanding and opening their horizon and wanting to make sure they’re supporting Black businesses. So, I do appreciate that. Our clientele is still very Black, though.

"My parents have had our business operating in this district for 36 years. We’re here for family. We’re here for community, and we’re here to serve. Black people had a history of being found in Five Points. Find us in Five Points. That matters. We are here to make sure we are serving in a historically Black district for the community.

“Whatever the lane is that you work, just work your lane, and people will see you. I love what I do because you can see how people’s lives change through food. It’s a reward that I’m here every day. We’re changing lives around food every day."

Steve Harris | Owner, Out the Box Gym, Cincinnati, Ohio

“To be a Black business owner in 2022, for me, I'm very grateful, feel blessed, and excited for everything that’s to come.

"I was told by several people, ‘Good luck starting a gym in the middle of a pandemic.’ But again, I was blessed that everything fell right into place.

“Honestly, I didn’t think anything about being Black and starting a business. I just thought about starting a business. I thought about helping other trainers, helping the clients that I already have. I’ve been thinking about starting my own gym and personal training facility for as long as I’ve been a personal trainer, and 2020 just seemed to be the right time. For me, having the business isn’t anything to do with me being my race.

“When you walk through the doors in here, we have a sign on the door that says, ‘We do not discriminate against race, sex, gender, sexual orientation.' We’re the only business in Cincinnati that is on the site. Not only am I Black, but I’m part of the LGBTQ community, so it’s about helping everyone. There’s also rainbow flags on the door as well, which also took some time, because I didn’t want the business just to be known as a Black-owned business or an LGBT-owned business. But I did want to be out there for people to know that, yes, we are accepting of everyone.

“There’s always a risk of alienating a specific group of people. I didn’t want anyone to think that we were just a Black-owned business or that we were just catering to the LGBT community. But I also wanted to know that we are welcoming to everyone.

"The way society is right now is very divided. But I want people to know that we are welcoming. When people walk into the facility, they see people of all communities in here. Everyone is welcoming. We are building a community.”