By Andrew Keshner
At Love Cork Screw , a Chicago-based wine company that has sold more than 1 million bottles since 2013, founder Chrishon Lampley says she and her staff always had the talent and capacity to deliver. They just needed more opportunities and more avenues to break into broader markets.
It took the shockwaves from George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 to make that happen — an outcome about which Lampley has deeply mixed feelings. “I would not have gone that fast without him,” she said.
Prospects broadened for Lampley, growing her spot where fewer than 1% of wine industry “negociants” — wine merchants who can handle everything from the purchase of grapes onwards in the wine-making and selling process — are Black women. But, she said, there was a part of her that felt, “Really, it took this for you to see me?” Then there was the other feeling: “OK, let’s roll now.”
That’s exactly what happened.
Lampley’s wine distribution has gone from two states to 15 as more national-scale buyers, including Walmart /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT +0.86% , reached out and have stuck with Love Cork Screw after a flurry of “feel-good” consumer sales that faded somewhat after Floyd’s death. Her revenue and sales are double what they were in 2020, exceeding the $1 million mark.
At Not Just Cookies Wholesale Bakery , also in Chicago, owner Johnathon Bush says revenue is double what it was during the pandemic’s early phase and could grow even more if one big-time buyer comes through.
It’s tough for Bush to trace all the factors behind his growth. There are spikes around Black History Month events in February, but Bush says his increased revenue is likely a reflection of a reopening economy and decisions that paid off to focus on e-commerce.
That’s not to mention the hungry consumers and clients who are eager to spend — even when Bush had to raise prices because of his own rising costs. “We were lucky; we just were resilient and very grateful that we are an upward position,” said Bush.
By the time of Floyd’s death under the knee of a now-former Minneapolis police officer who was later convicted of murder, COVID-19 was already underlining the health inequities between white and Black America. Floyd’s killing also unleashed new waves of attention on inequities perpetuated by historical discrimination in government policy and other institutions — including the chasm between Black and white household wealth.
White households had a median net worth of $188,200 in 2019, according to the Federal Reserve , compared to $24,100 for Black households. One way to help narrow that gap is supporting Black-owned businesses , many consumers and corporations have recognized.
Two years later, Black business community members and owners say that after the flurry of attention, they’ve made gains in market share and customers, sometimes unevenly. But the progress itself is still a work in progress, they say.
In the predominantly white, male world of the building trades, Melissa Blair, the owner of B.A.M. Electrical Contracting in Pennsauken, N.J., remembers when phrases like “participation goals” for including women and people of color would sometimes be a source of tension in conversation. They’re less so now, she said.
Federal and state building contracts can already include goals for having women and minority-owned businesses participate in a certain amount of the work. Corporations increasingly are using these, she said.
When Blair comes in as a subcontractor to work with contractors, she said, “some of them are not just looking at you as a number. They actually see you as a person.”
Blair broke into commercial work last year, and she’s on pace to have even more work this year. The key was a $75,000 line of credit from the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
Commercial electrical contracting is more lucrative than residential work, Blair explained. But residential work is paid up front, while commercial work pay comes later, when back offices cut checks. As a result, contractors need the capital on hand to front their heavy-duty costs.
Between the opportunities and attitude shifts, Blair said, “it is improving.” “I want to keep the ‘ing’ on there,” she said. “It’s not improved, but it is improving in some aspects, absolutely.”
But in Atlanta, Ga., Kela Taylor has been turned down three times between 2021 and 2022 for a commercial loan. The money would enable her to lease a new space for her business, Universal Salon Suites, a venture she started in 2015 that has been on hiatus since July 2021. “It’s very discouraging,” Taylor said. “I’m hopeful every day, but it is very discouraging.”
But John Harmon, the founder, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said he believes the increased opportunities and support for Black-owned businesses are real. “This is not some flash-in-the-pan situation,” he said. “This is absolutely real.”
On top of its other business support, Harmon’s organization has built an $8 million fund through membership contributions. The money goes towards microloans to help businesses like Blair’s lift to the next level.
“2020 was about ‘How do we just diversify? How are we more inclusive?’” said LaToya Williams-Belfort, the executive director of the Fifteen Percent Pledge.
Now it’s about the specifics, Williams-Belfort said — think marketing budgets, product positioning and vendor capacity. “2022 is about really understanding the nuance of diversity and including Black entrepreneurs, and creating long-term sustainable partnerships,” she said.
The Fifteen Percent Pledge, founded in June 2020, is working to have Black-owned brands occupy 15% of the shelf space (or vendor work) at national retailers, reflecting the approximate 15% of the U.S. population that identifies as Black or mixed-race. Since then, 28 brands — including Gap /zigman2/quotes/206554267/composite GPS +3.09% , Old Navy and Crate & Barrel — have made the pledge and entered into contracts worth a combined $10 billion in revenue with more than 500 Black-owned businesses.
There’s still a long way to go, and many unanswered questions, said Charisse Conanan Johnson, a managing partner at Next Street, an organization that works with companies, philanthropies, financial institutions and minority entrepreneurs to build a more inclusive economy.
“Our sense is there’s still a lot more work to do from a corporate perspective to support Black-owned businesses,” said Johnson. In a time of rising interest rates, she noted, “what we are hearing and seeing is access to capital is harder than ever if we are not talking about grant money.”
That trend was evident even before Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell started talking about increasing interest rates to curb inflation.
Excluding pandemic-related assistance, 16% of Black-owned firms last year received all sought-after financing, according to the Federal Reserve’s small-business credit survey . That’s down from 26% in 2019, researchers noted. Among all demographics, 31% said they got all the money they wanted when seeking financing last year, down from 51%.
Other surveys point to a broader issue. Nearly one-third (32%) of all small-business owners applied for the federal Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) but did not receive it, according to research from Small Business Majority , an organization representing diverse entrepreneurs in the country.
Four in 10 survey participants unsuccessfully asked for an increase in the loan amount, and roughly another third (30%) were waiting for a decision on the requested increase. At the same time, 65% felt more optimistic about their prospects going into 2022’s second quarter.
These types of loans are the largest portion of the Small Business Administration’s loan portfolio, said Patrick Kelley, the associate administrator of the SBA’s Office of Capital Access, in a recent congressional testimony . As of April, the agency had 3.9 million loans totaling more than $378 billion, he said .
The agency is balancing quick processing and fraud prevention, Kelley added. The two- to three-week turnaround on loans below $500,000 and one month for loans above $5,000 is “on par with or faster than industry standards,” he said.
When it comes to consumer behavior, there has been change in the right direction, Johnson said. “I do think it is real; I don’t think it is just talk,” she said. “I think more people have the consciousness that supporting Black-owned business, the business case is there” — melding consumer need with a higher purpose.
Though 45% of people think companies should support Black-owned brands, the numbers skew higher for younger shoppers, according to a fall 2021 McKinsey & Company survey. For example, 56% of Gen Z consumers say that’s the case, compared to 42% of baby boomers.
It might be too soon to spot bottom-line differences in the aggregate, but some early signs point to more financially secure times ahead for Black businesses.
In the Fed’s recently released look at Americans’ financial health , Black participants had the sharpest increase from 2020 to 2021 among all demographics when asked if they favorably rated their local economy — rising from 32% to 42%, though the number was still below 46% in 2019.
There has surely been pain amid the progress. Lampley said she spent many days crying after Floyd’s murder. She watched the entire criminal trial against Derek Chauvin that finished with the former cop’s conviction on charges that included second-degree unintentional murder and third-degree murder.
Chauvin is serving a 22.5-year sentence on the state conviction, though he is appealing the case. Earlier in May, a federal judge accepted Chauvin’s plea deal on a civil-rights case that includes a 20- to 25-year sentence running alongside the state sentence.
“That anger that I had, I turned it into so much strength,” Lampley said — strength to shift her business to new heights. “Now I can function like a normal company because I got that shot finally,” she said.
Looking ahead, Lampley added, “I am going to take full advantage of the opportunity I have now to show I’m just as good as everyone else.”