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The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sparked outrage across the United States, as resulting protests restarted America’s dialogue about race, racism, and the systems that allow and perpetuate it.
The idea of systemic racism isn’t new. The original term, institutional racism, was coined in 1967 to describe a subtle and pervasive force that ensured racist results without relying on overt racism. This “background racism” has been linked to lower outcomes for black Americans in education, housing, healthcare, income, and business.
According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), there are 2.6 million black businesses operating in the U.S. Even though black people make up 15% of the U.S. population, only about 10% of companies are black-owned. An even smaller percentage of products on store shelves come from black-owned businesses.
Black Business Month, observed every August, was started to bring these numbers up to parity — and challenger brands can help.
In 2004, John William Templeton and Frederick E. Jordan Sr. came together to push for a cause near and dear to their hearts: celebrating and supporting black businesses. They created National Black Business Month to highlight the importance of black-owned businesses to the economy and to communities across the country. Spoiler alert — black-owned businesses generate over $150 Billion in revenue!
Black Business Month is an opportunity for all brands to look at how they do business and evaluate if they could do a better job supporting black entrepreneurs. Even challenger brands who might think they’re too small to make a difference can pitch in — every little bit helps as we work towards a more just economy.
In the simplest of terms: it’s the right thing to do. Black businesses have historically faced a mountain of obstacles on the way to success. Black business owners have much more difficulty obtaining credit than white business owners, for example, leading to most black-owned companies having to bootstrap entirely with cash or investments from friends and family. Their products are more likely to be seen as niche inventory and relegated to shelf space designated for “ethnic” products. Furthermore, black-owned businesses are more than twice as likely to have permanently closed as a result of COVID-19. Suffice to say, supporting black businesses is an important step in undoing centuries of injustice.
But championing Black enterprise isn’t just a moral cause. Black Americans are a significant portion of the consumer base — one many companies are currently ignoring. Supporting black businesses also supports social justice and business growth. It’s a way to stand out, both by taking a stand and introducing new products that competitors may not be carrying. It’s a way to reach new markets and new consumers that have largely been ignored. And it’s a way to expand vendor selection past the obvious choices and find better deals, products, and services to support growing companies.
No matter how large or small, and no matter the industry they focus on, any brand can support black entrepreneurs. Even the smallest companies can make a real impact.
For retailers, the simplest way to support black entrepreneurs is to start putting more products from black-owned brands on shelves. An offshoot of Black Business Month, the 15% Pledge is an organization that asks brands to voluntarily dedicate 15% of their purchasing power to black-owned businesses and products.
There are numerous resources available to help companies find black-owned brands to buy from and support. Some suggestions include:
Marketing, IT, accounting, engineering, or any of the hundreds of other B2B services challenger brands need — at 20%, business services is the top category for black businesses. That makes it easy for companies to find new vendors that are majority black-owned and can be an easy way for even small brands to make a big difference.
The internet makes it incredibly easy to find suppliers and vendors from around the world, but nothing beats discovering a trusted partner next door or in the next town over. Shopping for new products to carry, new suppliers for materials, and new vendors for business services in local communities has an outsized impact. Shopping local builds bonds, strengthens relationships, and helps lift everyone around, creating a virtuous cycle of growth and prosperity. More successful local businesses mean more localized money velocity and more customers for your business.
Organizations such as the Black Chamber of Commerce, Black Business Month, and countless others help black businesses launch and grow. Supporting these organizations with donations, volunteer time, and awareness can significantly grow the ecosystem of black entrepreneurship. Consider looking for local organizations and donating or asking if there are opportunities to assist.
Whether brands have physical locations or are digital-only, all of them can take big steps towards engaging more black consumers. Brands should review the way they market and sell their products to ensure they aren’t making mistakes of exclusion. They should also take proactive steps to grow a black audience. Take frequent soundings and pulse checks with these customers to find out what they would like to see more on shelves and in digital storefronts and in branding and marketing.
One of the major reasons institutional racism is so difficult to defeat is that it often doesn’t look like racism and doesn’t come from a racist place. Much of it is just a subconscious bias for doing business with people that “look like me.” Breaking this cycle requires hiring and empowering a diverse workforce, so that “looks like me” becomes a lot less homogenous.
Not only will this make it easier for brands to support black businesses, but it will also create a bigger pool of professionals of color who can use their experience to start their own companies. And if that wasn’t enough, there are tons of benefits that accrue to companies that hire a diverse workforce.
The events of 2020 have made one thing clear: inclusivity is no longer an option for brands. Beyond the moral implications of building a more just and equitable world, and beyond the outrage at how institutional racism has marginalized communities of color, brands need to become more diverse and inclusive if they want to survive.
By 2050, the U.S. is projected to be a minority-majority country. Companies need to adapt if they want to make it — and supporting black businesses is a necessary and important first step in that transformation. The fact that it’s also the right thing to do makes this an absolute no-brainer.
Happy Black Business Month. To all of our amazing partners, vendors, and users who run or work for a black-owned business, thank you for continuing to fight and thrive. We’ve got your back. I’ve got your back.
Originally published on August 10th, 2020, last updated on June 22nd, 2022.