Roughly three million Black-owned businesses contribute more than $200 billion to the U.S. economy annually, employing more than a million people, according to the U.S. Joint Economic Committee.
But let’s drill down: In Oklahoma City, the Brookings Institute lists out 569 Black-owned businesses, which accounts for 2 percent of employer businesses in our city.
However, if Black-owned businesses were equivalent to the Black population of Oklahoma City, we’d see about 12.4 percent of businesses owned by Black Oklahoma City residents. That means we’d need 3,559 more Black businesses to have a proportionate amount.
In this feature, we start the conversation about what disparities exist, what longtime barriers are still in place and what growth and success looks like for Black-owned businesses in OKC’s future. Joanne Davis, Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce president, walks through some of the access issues she encounters when working alongside Black entrepreneurs. JaBee Williams, Emmy-award winning rapper and owner of Eastside Pizza House, discusses the challenges and successes he sees as both an entertainer and business owner. J.D. Baker, who worked for years with Mayor David Holt and now is with the venture-capital firm Cortado Ventures, tells the history of Black-owned businesses in Oklahoma City. And finally, we tell the stories of eight different OKC business leaders, who outline their triumphs as well as their trials as Black-owned business owners in a town when 98 percent of all the businesses are not Black-owned.
Quintin Hughes is a founding member of Northeast OKC Renaissance, originally an ad hoc group of community stakeholders who were collectively to represent the voices of NEOKC residents and businesses, while advocating for “ethical development.” It’s a term Hughes uses to describe development that keeps housing, safety, wellness and education, while preserving African American culture and art.
Hughes is board president of NEOKCR, and in that capacity, he and the organization advocate for current residents are benefactors and participants in the redevelopment of their own neighborhoods. To facilitate that, developers have to embrace a slower growth model, one that is contrary to gentrification-style development.
“Ideally, northeast OKC would be connected to new development like the Innovation District and downtown OKC,” Hughes said. “We’d like to see Oklahoma City advance with more diversity and more diversity in wealth. We’d like to see Black-owned businesses as stakeholders in development, and assist them to reach the stratosphere. It’s an aspirational growth model, and NEOKCR, along with other entities, can help the resource poor reach those goals.”
Chaya Pennington is an educator and food service veteran; she’s also the co-owner of Kindred Spirits, Northeast Oklahoma City’s newest bar and cultural hub. As part of her work as an educator, she takes students to Vast for a meal, and it’s not just for the good food or the literal view. The students are there for the metaphorical view, or better stated, the aspirational view.
“I lean on professional connections to create opportunities for students,” she said. “It’s one thing to offer a class; it’s quite another for them to see themselves as culinary professionals. It’s about exposure and not limiting their options to fast food or chain restaurants. They don’t have to choose McDonald’s or Chili’s.”
“We’ve spent the past 30 years telling kids that the only path to success went through college, and that’s not true,” she said. “Hospitality provides a good life, and now we’re faced with an entire generation of skilled trades retiring with no one to take their places.”
Maurianna Adams, the executive director of Progress OKC, also said its integral to show young people all that is available to them.
“We have to move the needle for underserved businesses in the Black community, and I don’t mean just the northeast side,” she said. “Northeast OKC is not synonymous with Black-owned businesses; they are scattered throughout the city. We have to show young people the full spectrum of what’s available, and then help them see themselves in those positions: science, tech, politics, health care and aerospace.”
The themes that emerge when talking to Black business and community leaders involve this kind of aspirational language: kids and young would-be entrepreneurs seeing themselves in roles they may not be able to see without someone broadening the opportunity horizon. The lack of aspirational thinking bedevils many whose calling it is to serve the larger community, including Joanne Davis, executive director of the Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce.
“Kids in other communities grow up with parents and grandparents who speak the language of business: banking, finance, insurance, contracts, interest, marketing – all the vocabulary associated with doing business or being in business,” she said. “It is a language the Black community often has not learned, and it’s based on access.”
Access here refers not just to being in the room where deals are made or growing up in a home or neighborhood surrounded by professionals, entrepreneurs and skilled tradespeople. It also refers to the ways in which Black would-be entrepreneurs have had to scrap and overcome obstacles absent in white communities to get access to capital, investors, real estate and opportunities, she said.
“Eastpoint is the first new retail development on the northeast side in my lifetime,” Pennington said, “and it’s important to remember they approached 25 banks and were told no before they got a yes.”
That kind of number is surprising to white entrepreneurs with tailored business plans, family investors and a network of professional connections. Yet it’s the reality for many Black-owned businesses that would like to access capital for expansion, start-up costs, equipment, etc.
Pennington ran headfirst into the issue when she was the last Black business owner in Deep Deuce, a traditionally and historically Black neighborhood. In 2015, she was priced out of Urban Roots – a restaurant and venue that served as a cultural hub – when the building sold and she was told that in order to make the deal work, the new owner would have to raise rent. Watching rent increase to the unpayable point because of a deal in which business owners had no voice is a disconcerting and disheartening place to be, and it’s further compounded when there are no viable options to continue to operate.
Greg Jones is a board member of Northeast OKC Renaissance and a business advisor for the Oklahoma Small Business Development Center, an organization funded by the Small Business Administration and local partners. His primary role is as an advisor to minority business owners, where he helps with everything “soup to nuts,” including startup, training, marketing, sales, expansion, research, financing, government contracting, etc. In terms of what his clients are facing, he said three major hurdles exist, based on financing and education (i.e., lifelong learning): access to capital, strategic planning for marketing, sales, etc., and guidance through expansion or growth.
“The goal is to give them tools to succeed, including business training,” Jones said. “In many communities, businesses are inherited. By the time a young person is ready to take the reins, they’ve learned the language and they’re surrounded by a team of family and business connections who understand the business and can help in multiple ways. First generation business owners don’t have these resources.”
Acquiring capital is, according to Jones, the No. 1 obstacle for Black-owned businesses. Much of the training focuses on credit, credit scores, business plans – all the tools that help when it comes time to approach a bank, most of which are unwilling to lend money to Black-owned startups or businesses in expansion/growth mode.
“After 20 years in the market, I know many people who can help, so our one-on-one sessions involved customizing an approach that draws on those resources,” Jones said.
He’s overtaxed, though. He said he sees five to six clients per day, and each session can easily run 90 minutes. His caseload is more than 100 clients. Even with a network of other business advisors, the numbers are exhausting, and because there have been no systemic solution in place to offset systemic obstacle, he said nearly every client starts at a point of informational deficiency.
“There is a noticeable excitement at the beginning of the process,” Jones said, “but too often that turns to weariness when clients encounter reality, when two to three months becomes a year, and they ask ‘How many banks do we have to approach?’”
Hughes is convinced that the new Henrietta B. Foster Minority Small Business and Entrepreneurship Center will offer some hope and opportunities.
“The center will offer an opportunity to advance communities of color in Oklahoma City in ways that contribute to the advancement of the whole city,” Hughes said. “We need to identify the high-gross potential minority-owned businesses and create an infrastructure to support them. I think the Foster Center will be critical in that endeavor.”
Davis said assessing the state of Black-owned businesses is difficult, though, because to do it properly would require adequate financing that is unavailable.
“Who will track it? How?” she said. “The best we can do right now is get an LLC list from the Secretary of State, but that doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.”
Currently, according to Davis, the majority of Black-owned businesses are still on the service, not supply, side.
“We’ve always had the service side,” she said, “going all the way back to so-called domestic work, but we don’t have enough supply side businesses yet. There are definite gaps, especially in manufacturing, skilled trades and tech.”
Davis said the goal for all is to help the community expand vision and opportunities.
“Black business owners start with a dream, just like everyone else. They might can fry a delicious chicken wing, but they need skills and information to know how to open a chicken joint, from credit to financial documentation – all that access-based vocabulary that turns a dream into a reality.”