KC entrepreneurs address resources, challenges, social impact in panel on ‘giving Black’

Six members of the Kansas City business community shared ideas, observations and concerns about the unequal opportunities Black entrepreneurs face and why “giving Black” is important during a panel discussion hosted by Startland News on June 17.

The event was part of Startland’s series focused on conversations around how racism affects Kansas City’s creative and entrepreneurial world.

A need for investment

Ave Stokes, director of operations for Alive and Well Communities, a nonprofit centered around helping communities through trauma education, discussed his frustration with the “strategic disinvestment” in the Black community. Black-led initiatives historically have not drawn the same funding and investments as others have, and as COVID-19 highlighted pressing needs in different communities, Stokes wondered why more people weren’t concerned.

“I’d have to say, I don’t know what more you have to do for people to see how much this is needed,” Stokes said.

Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, American companies pledged to spend a total of around $50 billion toward racial equity, but only $250 million has been spent, according to a report from Creative Investment Research. Stokes referred to the study as the panelists discussed how momentum for racial equality now compares to that of this time last year.

“I don’t know if we can truly say (the money) actually was ever there,” Stokes said. “Or we can just assume that the desire was there. But you know, people are reactive in the moment. So I think it’s just us continuing to create the opportunities for people to be able to invest in the places where they desire to invest.”

Panelists discussed not only the lack of investment Black-owned businesses receive compared to white-owned companies, but also the lack of opportunity for people to invest in Black enterprises. Brandon Calloway, co-founder and CEO of Generating Income For Tomorrow, or G.I.F.T., talked about his organization’s efforts to address that gap. G.I.F.T. works to provide grants to Black-owned businesses in Kansas City, specifically those located in low-income areas.

“Black wealth is still significantly lower than white wealth all around the country, but also here, specifically in Kansas City,” Calloway said. “So, we know that by helping these businesses through grant funding, we can help them grow to a point where they can create more jobs.”

In his work to fund Black businesses, Calloway said he is frequently told that giving out grants won’t help the same way a loan would. People contend that loans motivate entrepreneurs to work harder and pay back the money. Calloway said he disagrees with this idea that hasn’t proven helpful to Black entrepreneurs.

“I feel like the lack of investment in organizations and a lack of action comes from a lack of being willing and able to listen to people that have different perspectives from them,” Calloway said.

Beyond funding

Panelists discussed how Black entrepreneurs face unequal access to resources needed for a successful business beyond just funding. Calloway referenced a popular quote to illustrate why having access to the right networks, service providers and other tools to start a business is essential.

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. (That) sounds good and makes people feel really, really intelligent when they say it,” Calloway said. “But what if you teach somebody to fish, but you don’t give them a fishing pole? Like, what good have you done?”

Calloway said support includes more than just awarding money. G.I.F.T also provides grant recipients one year of free accounting services and business coaching, and free design consulting from a marketing firm.

These services — and the lack of opportunity to obtain them —can often act as a barrier to entry for Black entrepreneurs, said Quinncy McNeal, an attorney with Kansas City-based law firm Husch Blackwell.

“(We) surround these businesses with the support they need, because they need legal (help),” McNeal said. “It’s a critical resource, but it’s not just legal. Accounting is a twin need, finance, at least at some point, becomes a twin need, access to capital, marketing. … So we are trying to bring in other resources to help these businesses to give them a real substantial lift.”

McNeal and other lawyers at Husch Blackwell offer pro bono counsel to low-income clients, centered around the idea of equal access to opportunities for everyone.

“We just think that is the foremost tool now in reversing these historic, long, long-standing racial and economic disparities: place resources in the hands of minorities,” McNeal said.

Social impact through ‘giving Black’

Panelists also discussed what sets Black-owned businesses apart, amplifying even louder the importance of showing support to Black entrepreneurs.

Nika Cotton owns Soulcentricitea, a tea room in Kansas City. Cotton said a large aspect of her business is creating a social space for the community.

“In truth, we are a community space, a social business,” said Cotton. “I feel like it’s necessary as a Black business to have a social impact on the community, because there’s so much work to be done. … And so having a social hand or a social aspect to business is very important.”

Other panelists agreed that because Black entrepreneurs face unique obstacles, their motivation and desires can be unique as well. Kemet Coleman, director of marketing and experiences for Startland, explained that his entrepreneurial endeavors weren’t formed out of passion for an idea, but what felt like a requirement.

“For myself … entrepreneurship wasn’t necessarily a choice, it was kind of something that I had to do in order to make a living,” Coleman said. “And I think that’s the case for a lot of African Americans in the entrepreneurial space. It’s not just, ‘Oh, this was a cool hobby that I want to turn into a business.’ This is actually my livelihood, and I probably won’t eat if I don’t do this.”

McNeal said giving Black can have a large domino effect of positive change across the country.

“The hope is that that business owner then will be a blessing to his or her diverse workforce, that diverse workforce then handing it down to their families, the families then can be a blessing to the community,” McNeal said.

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