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Beauty & The Black Dollar: Why Our Collective Power Is Key To The Survival Of Black-Owned Businesses

Beauty entrepreneurs share their experiences in the age of the #ShopBlack surge.

Business

For months we've been adjusting to a new way of working, living, and connecting as COVID-19 and its effects actualize themselves in our lives. And while I've personally forgone my hopes of a traditional #HotGirlSummer, some states have announced plans to re-open despite warnings from officials that the pandemic is "far from over." This, paired with weeks of global unrest in response to yet another wrongful murder of a Black person, has left the most vulnerable communities in a season of constant change.

Black and woman-owned small businesses are among them.

From Madam C.J. Walker to Honeypot's Beatrice Dixon, Black women entrepreneurs have played a vital role in our country's business landscape, spreading their magic across industries and color lines. And although these have proven to be trying times, a renewed focus on these contributions has resulted in a swell of support and heightened interest in seeing Black women-owned entities succeed.

Founders like Yelitsa Jean-Charles of Healthy Roots Dolls can attest to this after a now-viral Tweet translated into sales typically seen over the course of months, in just two days.

People are looking for ways to support and reinvest in Black communities to honor their contributions and combat racial inequities that have been hindering their economic and social progression for generations.

I spoke with Black women beauty entrepreneurs who shared more about how they've faced these challenges head-on, and how this surge of support can impact the future of the beauty industry and Black businesses at-large.

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In late March, millions of Americans began awaiting their $1,200 cut from the CARES Act as a means to withstand rising unemployment and the residual economic onslaught. Similar programs were also put in place to protect small businesses, but not without their own set of hurdles.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of the more popular aid programs, provides low-interest loans to small businesses. But with a lack of concrete guidelines and the exhaustion of initial funds after just 13 days, countless small and minority-owned businesses were left helpless while larger companies received million-dollar bailouts.

"If you target your aid toward a certain type of business, we will come out of this pandemic and we will only have that type of business,'' said Amaya Smith, co-founder of the Brown Beauty Co-op. Smith and fellow beauty entrepreneur Kimberly Smith (no relation) co-founded the Sephora-esque beauty hub in 2018. The boutique celebrates women of color by fostering an inclusive community through its featured products, events, and beauty services.

Even in normal circumstances, Black women disproportionately lack investment capital and other resources needed to maintain their businesses and are often sole proprietorships. Despite being the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in the country, they receive less than 1% in venture funding, leaving many without the emergency cash reserves sufficient for said survival.

Early numbers also show a record plummet in the number of active business owners from February to April 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

Of those, Black and female-owned small businesses have been impacted the most, experiencing a 41% and 25% decrease in activity, respectively.

"So, how do we help and support businesses who already had challenges with funding and didn't have as much access before?" Amaya continued. "I actually hope that this period of time highlights the disparity in funding and capital between businesses."

Image: Jhavon Kashif, Founder, Nailbed & Bar

For nail salon-owner Jhavon Kashif, the pandemic has presented the second largest threat to the Nailbed & Bar in its young two-year history.

"The first was the federal government shutdown [of 2019] and here we are with COVID-19, so we've been able to weather those storms but it has been a challenge," Jhavon shared.

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Beauty and the Black Dollar

We're seeing a global outcry against racism and the structural injustices experienced by Black Americans now more than ever. In addition to the impact of coronavirus, Black entrepreneurs find themselves managing their businesses in the crossfire of backlash many brands are receiving in their not-so-genuine support of Black Lives Matter.

Once taboo, corporate leaders across industries have also announced their support for anti-racist efforts and Black Lives.

Campaigns and calls for action like #PullUpOrShutUp, created by Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter, are highlighting the beauty industry's lack of Black representation and pushing for organizational change to address it.

The Brown Beauty Co-op penned an open letter to Sephora in support of the campaign, expressing their disappointment in the brand's lack of accountability for minimal diversity among executives and mistreatment of customers of color.

Image: Kimberly Smith and Amaya Smith, Co-founders, The Brown Beauty Co-op

Up until this pivotal point, many industries have neglected Black consumers, their spending power, and the importance of inclusive marketing and business practices, all while profiting from their influence.

According to a 2018 Nielson report, Black shoppers aren't only spending on products created to appeal to them, but spend considerably more money in the general beauty marketplace in comparison to their counterparts. "Our research shows that Black consumer choices have a 'cool factor' that has created a halo effect, influencing not just consumers of color but the mainstream as well," said Cheryl Grace, Senior Vice President of U.S. Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement at Nielsen on the report's findings.

The current state of affairs also reveals the economic and racial inequities that have accumulated and hindered the Black community over time. In fact, studies show us that the Black-white wealth gap remains as wide as it was in 1968.

Our dollar matters, and choosing to spend it at Black businesses is an act of economic activism, one that will have implications for generations to come.

The renewed attention of the protests has amplified the harsh duality of Black experiences to the masses, resulting in an outpour of support and celebration of Black art, beauty, history, and of course, Black business.

"My hope that the support of Black business will continue beyond the protest," said Jhavon on the recent wave of support.

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Black Women Keep it Pushing in Times of Trouble

The beauty industry relies heavily on personal interactions and physical experiences. Shoppers love to try and test before purchasing and entrepreneurs have had to get crafty about everything from marketing to providing its normal services.

"[During the shutdown] foot traffic was impacted, appointments and walk-ins, but it wasn't anything like this," said Jhavon of the pandemic. "Our doors are closed. We cannot accept anyone in our space to render any kind of service, so we really had to focus on marketing in a different way. One thing that we do that has been helpful is that we produce a lot of our products in-house."

In addition to adapting its luxury salon offerings into a Happy Healthy Nails at-Home kit, the salon expanded the promotion of other original nail care products to drive sales through its e-commerce platform.

As with most devastating events, opportunities remain for Black beauty entrepreneurs to be nimble and personally connect with communities in a way that other large retailers, like those called out in the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign, often cannot.

"Although this is a tough period, it's through these tough periods that a lot of businesses are able to come out better on the other side," said Amaya of the Brown Beauty Co-op. The boutique has kept their community of beauty enthusiasts and founders engaged with a series of virtual shopping parties, entrepreneurship social hours, and Shop Brown Saturdays in addition to its fundraising efforts.

"We're really taking advantage of social media [and] different types of virtual meetings so that we can keep our current customer base engaged but also so we can gain new customers through this," she continued. "I think being transparent is the most important."

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The harnessing of our collective power will play a key role in the survival of Black and women-owned small businesses. While we collectively work toward a more inclusive society, buying Black ensures our voices are heard and communities are supported.

Learn more about the Black beauty brands and Black businesses, you can support here.

Featured image courtesy of The Brown Beauty Co-op

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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