It’s been more than two months since Philadelphia saw widespread protests after the killing of George Floyd. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained more support, and for some Black-owned business owners in the area, the movement has helped their companies, and created new opportunities.
One of those business owners is Mustafa Rashed, the president and CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a government relations, advocacy and strategic communications firm with offices in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Washington.
“The crisis communications practice of our business has exploded (because of the movement),” Rashed says. “CEOs and senior leadership teams are relying on us heavily to help them navigate messaging around sensitive issues on race and social justice.” Rashed believes that there is a “long overdue reckoning in this country” and that “the corporations that truly want to impact social justice and eradicate structural racism have to put meaningful actions beyond their words.”
Yvonne Blake, who owns Hakim’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, has also seen more interest in the products she sells and says that the BLM movement and social justice protests have caused a “sudden increase” in requests for books on race and inequality as well as books on African American history, especially from white customers.
There are many ways that Black entrepreneurs are using this social justice movement to improve both their lives and their communities.
For example, companies around the country have prioritized diversity not only in their hiring, but also in the companies and people they do business with. One small business that is seeing the benefits of this is Electro Soft Inc., a 34-year-old Montgomeryville-based contract manufacturer of electronics equipment.
“The COVID crisis has highlighted the deficiencies in many companies’ global supply chains and they are realizing that they need stateside manufacturing services,” said Karla Trotman, the company’s president and CEO. “At the same time, these companies are putting out BLM statements without even having a supplier diversity plan.”
Trotman says that as companies are extending their stateside search they are also reaching out to minority-owned businesses as a part of a larger strategy that includes identifying and engaging with Black-owned entities. “In the past, we would never post the fact that we were a Black-owned business,” she says. “History has taught us that it can be a liability. But now we are now in a fortunate position.”
Other Black-owned businesses are leveraging new sites and services that highlight their offerings. Among these are Five Fifths, which provides news, interviews and lists of Black-owned businesses; WeBuyBlack, which claims to be the largest e-marketplace for Black-owned businesses; and EatOkra, a mobile app that lists more than 2,500 Black-owned restaurants across the country that can be searched by cuisine and location. Locally, both Visit Philly and Afro Philly provide excellent resources for Black-owned small business and prospective customers.
Then, of course there’s social media. Melissa Parker, who owns a florist shop in Narberth, says that she has been “very vocal” online about her support of BLM, with a “very positive” response. “I have gained a lot more customers from my Black social circle,” she said. “I have tried to market myself as a Black woman-owned small business on social media and I have also tried to collaborate with other Black-owned businesses. If we can support each other we can gain strength in the market.”
Becoming certified as a minority-owned business also opens up more doors. The National Minority Supplier Development Council is considered the largest and most prominent certification body for minority-owned businesses. Getting certified with that organization creates more opportunities for federal and state jobs and many larger companies — including IBM, Microsoft and Marriott — rely on the NMSD to connect them to minority owned businesses.
In Philadelphia, minority-owned small businesses can register with the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity to gain access to public jobs. Pennsylvania offers certification through its Unified Certification Program, and New Jersey’s Division of Minority and Women Business Development offers “fast tracking” certification for New Jersey-based businesses that are certified with the other national or statewide agencies or programs. Both Electro Soft and Bellevue Strategies are minority certified. “Being a certified minority-owned business has given us a competitive advantage,” said Bellevue’s Rashed. “I have no reservations at all about emphasizing my race when it comes to marketing my business.”
Lots of entrepreneurs share that attitude. “In the beginning we didn’t hide our race but we didn’t actively promote that we were a Black-owned business,” said Nicole Williams Black, co-owner of Philadelphia Diamond Co., a custom jewelry manufacturer and seller in Center City. But after a few years, her attitude changed and now she has “no hesitation” of advertising the fact that her business is Black-owned. “The great thing about the BLM movement as it ties to support of Black businesses specifically is that we’re seeing that it is not just driving interest in African American clients but multicultural clients, as well,” she says. “That has been really great to see and our business is kind of poised for this kind of environment.”