Identity shapes business: Three local Black-owned businesses share stories of survival and perseverance during the pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, local businesses have been running across Washtenaw County struggled to adapt to prolonged downtimes and repeated closings. However, the pandemic hasn’t treated all business owners equally – a January study by University of Michigan researchers found that black entrepreneurs are about 30 times less likely to receive government support than white entrepreneurs.

In light of the unexpected challenges and accomplishments of the past year, The Michigan Daily spoke to the owners of three black-owned companies in Washtenaw County about the role of identity in corporate ownership, their commitment to their businesses, and the evolution of COVID-19 hampered their ability to work for the Community to care.

Black Stone Bookstore

In 2013 Carlos Franklin and Kip Johnson opened Ypsilantis Black Stone Bookstore and cultural center. Franklin, who is just blocks from the Eastern Michigan University campus, said he started the store because of a deep love for books. Some of his favorite authors are Richard Wright, Donald Goines and Leo Tolstoy.

“I think the key isn’t so much trying to be a black or white owned company,” Franklin said. “The key is to open up and do things that represent yourself.”

Although the store has many books on black culture, Franklin acknowledged that his selections cannot represent every identity or experience.

“I choose black (books) because I’m black,” said Franklin. “I think it’s better for people of color to talk about people of color, and we still can’t talk for everyone.”

Franklin said selling books and showing off black writers allows him to share his experiences through his business.

“I enjoy reading books that happen to be written by black authors. I’ve read all kinds of books, too, ”Franklin said. “But I wanted a few books that reflected me. I could see myself in these (books). ”

He also said that his identity as a black person also influenced his vision for the bookstore – Franklin hoped the bookstore would serve as a cultural hub for customers to “learn about people’s different cultures”.

As Black Stone pursues the business vision, it has followed that of Governor Gretchen Whitmer Store opening and closing regulations that have fluctuated during the pandemic. Franklin said although his business has faced certain financial challenges, he remains optimistic.

“It’s a bookstore so you really don’t get the money in it,” Franklin said. “You get in just to offer a service. As long as the doors open, we’re fine. ”

The pandemic has also changed their approach to business – Franklin said the store started a website when the pandemic hit to generate revenue.

“I never really liked the online stuff,” said Franklin. “I like meeting people and exchanging thoughts. But like everyone else, we had to adapt. “

Franklin is delighted with the number of community members, including students and professors from WWU and the University of Michigan, who visited the store and shared their experience with the store on social media Media in recent years.

“As a bookstore, we want to have a close relationship with schools, especially knowing that there aren’t many bookstores, not just in the city but in the country too,” said Franklin.

According to Franklin, his favorite part is socializing with customers and engaging with them through books.

“A customer is going to come in and we’ll be able to talk, enjoy, and have a good conversation,” said Franklin. “Then my day is over. Only I talk to you, share my story and maybe share something with someone else. I mean what more can we ask for? Just to be here, to be alive. “

Finesse hair salon

Like Black Stone, other local Washtenaw County Black businesses have woven their identities into the fabric of their passion projects.

Shawn and Hala Green, co-owners of Finesse Hair Salon in Ypsilanti, have been in the hair industry for 37 years, opening their own salon after working on behalf of other companies. They said they value the customers in their community, many of whom they have known for years.

“We have seen three or four generations of customers come to us since we opened,” said Hala Green. “You see people growing up and then they have children and their children have children, and then there are great-grandchildren who have their hair done, so it’s like family.”

Finesse was closed from March 15th to June 15th due to nationwide orders Restricting the operation of non-essential businesses. According to Shawn and Hala Green, they could only get unemployment checks and government loans.

“We could get some of the unemployment and so we could survive,” said Shawn Green. “I’m telling you the truth, if it hadn’t been for the relief of social work and grocery stamp aid, we would not have survived.”

The Greens stressed the importance of having a black-owned hair salon in their community. As culture and popular styles change, it is important that their business changes in parallel.

“We care for a lot of people with a lot of culture and hair, from natural to straight – there’s a lot of culture in black hair,” said Shawn Green. “And culture is changing, from straight to natural styles, from perms to keratin treatments, it is changing and we have to change with it. If you don’t change up on the styles, you will be left behind. “

They said that Finesse employees will continue to teach themselves new styles and techniques in order to provide the best possible service to their customers.

“We want to educate, learn new techniques and whatever comes out, you just have to keep learning and be able to be there for customers,” said Hala Green.

24. Cheese factory

Sean Brezzell, owner of 24. Cheesecakerie said he carried the torch of tradition from his mother and grandmother who ran a catering business.

With locations in Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Mall and downtown Ypsilanti, Brezzell’s entrepreneurship spurred his small business into a fast-growing, community-supported business.

“We want to put ourselves in a position to grow, but unfortunately with COVID that has worsened,” said Brezzell. “A lot of our ability to get the customers we want has been lost.”

Like Black Stone’s decision to go digital during the pandemic, Brezzel said there were positive aspects of the crisis for her company.

“It helped us put our model together and really improve on what we wanted to achieve by not only selling cheesecakes but also opening locations for other small businesses to highlight,” said Brezzel.

According to Brezzell, part of the 24th Cheesecakerie’s mission is to promote other local small businesses. At their Ann Arbor location, Brezzell said they sell T-shirts made by the local company With Ms. B., her Ypsilanti shop also sells hats from the Ypsilanti Hat Company.

“Black Americans deserve the same economic freedoms as everyone else”

Cydney Gardner-Brown, Senior Public Policy, deputy spokesman for the Black Student Union, reiterated the importance of supporting black-owned companies and empowering their owners in the community.

“Increasing their representation is really important,” said Gardner-Brown. “Like, for example, I go to a Walmart. And I am looking for (products for) my hair, and all the minimal products they offer are in a little corner called “Ethnic Hair Care”. ”

Gardner-Brown said black-owned businesses are important for two main reasons: because they address the unique needs of black patrons and because they empower black entrepreneurs and business owners.

“Ask any black girl or man, the situation with hairdressers and hair salons is really difficult,” said Gardner-Brown. “It’s difficult to find people in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti who can style hair for girls and not just a press but styles like braids. We even have a group chat dedicated to black hair and we share resources. “

Gardner-Brown said she knows Injustices over corporate ownership still disproportionately affect blacks, making it even more important for communities to invest resources in black-owned companies.

“It’s important because black Americans deserve the same economic freedoms as everyone else,” Gardner-Brown said. “This country has wronged black American entrepreneurs by not investing the same resources as other communities. It matters because black Americans matter. ”

The Daily Staff Reporters Isabelle Regent and Nina Molina can be reached at iregent@umich.edu and nimolina@umich.edu.

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