Cambridge Local First

As wave of protests call for equity in black lives, black business owners face their own challenges

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By Davit Antonyan on Thursday, June 11, 2020, on Cambridge Day. You can check out the article on Cambridge Day’s site here.

Even in a Black Lives Matter moment, black business owners have concerns about a lack of support – right down to difficulties getting funding and loans born out of a pandemic.

Nicola A. Williams, president of the Cambridge marketing firm The Williams Agency, said she struggled to secure a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which was meant to protect businesses sidelined by the spring’s coronavirus shutdown.

“I had applied for the PPP and did not make the first round even though I applied very early on,” Williams said. “My peers, who are from the Cambridge area, many of them bigger businesses, they were successful on the first round.”

She’s not alone in her concerns. The U.S. Office of Inspector General said in a May 8 report that the Small Business Administration’s loan program gave little guidance to banks on how to ensure that preferred recipients such as minority-owned businesses got any money. Nor were records kept in a way that could show the goals were being met.

Ultimately, temporary solutions such as PPP loans are not what’s needed, Williams said. “We’ve got to now make a commitment to think what would it really take to move the needle in this place,” Williams said. “It’s not just throwing money at a situation … it’s actually creating good, healthy policies that’s going to make a real difference.”

Cambridge Local First statement

Black business owners don’t encounter difficulties just at the federal level.

Cambridge Local First – a nonprofit network of Cambridge-based local businesses – expressed solidarity with black communities in a statement emailed June 3 to nearly 500 members, with executive director Theodora Skeadas reaffirming the organization’s commitment to creating a “more just, diverse, equitable and inclusive economy.”

“In organizing and amplifying the voices of business leaders in pursuit of an inclusive and vibrant local economy, we must support, amplify and elevate our black-owned businesses and communities,” she wrote.“Building a fair and equitable economy is inseparable from working toward racial justice.”

The organization included a list of black-owned businesses to support – and in Cambridge, that totals 20.

Greaves: Grants and support groups

Keisha Greaves

“Yes, it is very small. We are trying to get a community together,” said Keisha Greaves, owner of Girls Chronically Rock, a fashion design company with a social mission. “It could be better – or we’re not recognizing that there are more black business owners in the community.”

The low numbers were not missed by speakers at Sunday’s Black Lives Matter protest on Cambridge Common, who talked about the gentrification squeezing out Cambridge’s residents of color and their small businesses; one, Nellisha Leonce, urged protesters to build up the community: “Find a black business this week, and put your dollar toward the black establishment. And not just this week.”

Williams hopes the recent protests sweeping the country keep shedding light on the experience of minority-owned businesses, and that residents do increase their support.

“I look at this as an opportunity to raise more awareness about some of the inequities that exist. I hope people will be more open-minded to support black businesses, minority businesses, women-owned businesses, who may not have the same playing field,” she said.

As part of her company’s mission to inspire social justice, especially for young girls, Greaves said she is rolling out a line of clothing showing solidarity with the BLM movement with prints that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Disabled Lives Matter.”

Though she feels her business is supported by her local Cambridge community, Greaves said there are ample opportunities for broader policy changes that could help struggling minority-owned businesses, including targeted grants and business support groups.

Toussaint-Michel: Education and training

Rogera C. Toussaint-Michel

Rogera C. Toussaint-Michel, of the business coaching service MTM Executives, knows how Cambridge’s rising living and commercial costs imperil businesses, especially those owned by minorities. “A lot of the businesses that I worked with, that I networked with, simply can’t afford the chambers of commerce, and a lot of them are either no longer in business or just struggling in other ways,” she said.

Forming connections and networks has been another challenge during the pandemic, and Toussaint-Michel has been hosting her own networking events. She also has ideas about how government can boost minority business owners, starting with providing basic entrepreneurial education, training and more financing for “black communities and marginalized communities in general,” she said.

“But also, I’d like to see less barriers, because I do feel like the Greater Boston area has a lot of resources,” Toussaint-Michel said. “I think they don’t always take into consideration how hard it is for these communities to actually qualify or even sometimes apply for these opportunities.”

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