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Black Businesses Continue To Innovate During COVID-19

A glass store front with the words 'Black Owned Business' in silver, bold letters. The words are enclosed in a rectangle on the glass, the same exact color as the words
Paul Sableman/Flickr
North Carolina's Black businesses will face an uphill battle to recover after COVID-19.

When the first wave of federal COVID-19 provisions became available to businesses in April, Black business owners received a very small amount of relief funding. And the North Carolina Business Council estimates the number of Black businesses in the state has decreased by 41 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. There are several reasons for this, including the racial wage and generational wealth gaps, both of which contribute to Black businesses starting up with lower capital and struggling to sustain themselves without economic relationships with banks and other wealth-holding institutions.

North Carolina’s Black business owners face an uphill climb in the aftermath of COVID-19. Provided they find a way to remain afloat during the pandemic, business growth will be challenging. Partners in Equity has launched a new data and investment initiative, ResilNC, designed to help Black businesses sustain themselves longterm, after the economy restabilizes and businesses reopen permanently. Host Anita Rao talks to Napoleon Wallace, founding partner of Partners in Equity, as well as several local Black business owners, including Dorian Bolden, owner of Beyu Caffe and Beyu Blue Coffee; Justus McGee, owner of Soul Fresh Spring Rolls; Jackie Morin, co-founder of Wonder Puff Cotton Candy; and Shine Carter, owner of Shine Diamond Nails.

Interview Highlights:

On Business Capital Disparities

Napoleon Wallace says that the race-based disparity for Black and white business owners begins at the start-up level. “As part of our study, we found that when you look across all the businesses in the state, minority businesses, Black businesses [have less household wealth],” he explains. “Average household wealth is about $171,000 for white households, [while] the average Black household has about a tenth of that.”

On Giving Back As A Way Of Getting By

Though Dorian Bolden notes that he was in a unique situation as a Black entrepreneur, given his relationships with a number of banks and investors, he still struggled to keep his Beyu locations afloat. Eventually, the company looked to partnerships with nonprofit organizations to remain sustainable.  “Every business is built on serving customers, you know, to solve a problem. And that's kind of what we went back to,” he recalls. Beyu Caffe partnered with the Durham Public Schools Foundation to provide meals to families during the school year and the summer.

On Rolling With The Punches

Justus Wallace was on the cusp of his first profitable month with his food truck in March 2020. He bought the truck in 2018, after selling his signature spring rolls under tents at events. He notes that the demands of food truck vending are high. “It’s just constant going, everywhere. You drive to Greensboro, drive to Greenville, Fayetteville. All over North Carolina, pretty much, just trying to get our name out there.” The pandemic brought all of his travels to a halt, as events and large gatherings dried up statewide. In October of 2020, he sold his truck. He continues to sell cooked spring rolls out of his commercial kitchen location in Durham. He also offers frozen spring rolls, the timing of which turned out to be fortuitous. “The first week of March, we got approved by the State Department of Agriculture to sell the rolls frozen in retail spaces.” He hopes to see the frozen rolls on grocery store shelves in the future.

On Selling Joy During A Time Of Sorrow

Jackie Morin and her husband Rem founded Wonderpuff Cotton Candy in 2017. Their artisanal, organic cotton candy has since become popular in the Triangle, but the pandemic has presented the unexpected opportunity for them to expand their customer base. Through e-commerce, they’ve been able to sell their product to consumers all over the country. “I cannot believe how beautiful and successful we have become in such a historic time for humanity,” says Morin. “I never thought that kind of candy would give me sustainability in a time where everyone is facing exhaustion in every way. And we do not take that lightly. I feel like it's a calling, to move with intention and enjoy and go. We're very just very happy to be making cotton candy.”

On Starting Up As Everything Was Winding Down

Shine Carter was only in business for one month when the pandemic hit. Her Asheville-based nail salon is one of few Black nail salons in the area, and it relies heavily on tourist foot traffic. With tourism at a standstill, Carter had to figure out how to make ends meet in order to avoid closing her newly-opened doors. “I would take like a couple people at my house but I didn't really want a lot of people to come into my house. The product smells. There's lots of products, a big mess everywhere. I have kids. So I basically just worked a Certified Nursing Assistant job that I had. I just picked up shifts with the nursing home to cover the cost of my storefront. Luckily my overhead was pretty low.” She has since been able to safely reopen full-time.

Stacia L. Brown is a writer and audio storyteller who has worked in public media since 2016, when she partnered with the Association of Independents in Radio and Baltimore's WEAA 88.9 to create The Rise of Charm City, a narrative podcast that centered community oral histories. She has worked for WAMU’s daily news radio program, 1A, as well as WUNC’s The State of Things. Stacia was a producer for WUNC's award-winning series, Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon and a co-creator of the station's first children's literacy podcast, The Story Stables. She served as a senior producer for two Ten Percent Happier podcasts, Childproof and More Than a Feeling. In early 2023, she was interim executive producer for WNYC’s The Takeaway.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.