A group of Richmond’s Black entrepreneurs on Wednesday reflected on how racism has created hurdles to the growth of their careers and companies in the latest installment of BizSense Assembly, an online panel discussion series.
The panel consisted of Keva Sturdevant, president and CEO of Sturdevant Investment Consulting; Kelvin Hanson, president and founder of real estate development firm The Hanson Co.; Bron Hansboro, owner of The Flower Guy Bron; and Gwen Hurt, owner of Shoe Crazy Wine, a wine brand and distribution company.
They also mused on how those hurdles can be removed through frank dialogue about race and meaningful steps by companies to create diverse workforces with equal opportunities.
Challenges of racism
Despite the fact they work in varied industries, panelists recounted similar experiences with racism, which reduced their opportunities and created challenges their white competitors didn’t have.
“Our products and services are perceived as inferior,” Sturdevant said. “I think we’re always trying to prove that we provide a quality product. I think that always comes to the forefront.”
Clip I: Perception of Black-owned products
In her industry, Sturdevant said there can be reservations from customers, particularly white ones, about whether a Black woman is qualified to provide advice as a financial advisor. It prompts her to make a greater effort to talk up her credentials.
“That’s a huge obstacle to get over,” she said. “I feel like I have to doubly prove myself and talk about my success and talk about my accomplishments and what I’ve done over the years.”
Hurt, who founded Shoe Crazy in 2014 as a wine brand, said she was forced also to launch her own distribution operations because no distributor would sell her wine. She distributes her product to Walmart, Costco, Total Wine and others.
“There were different reasons why. ‘Well, you compete with one of our other brands, no one is going to buy from a Black-owned wine company.’ It was those types of things that were just disheartening,” she said.
As an entrepreneur you sometimes have to pivot whether you want to or not, or you’re driven to pivot. In my case, I was driven to pivot. I would have preferred to sell to distributors but they didn’t want us. So I became a distributor.”
Hansboro, whose company does floral arrangements for weddings and other events, said the growth and success of a Black business can make it a target for racism. When jobs at churches and VFW posts gave way to higher-end venues such as the Commonwealth Club and Jefferson Hotel, there was pushback, he said.
“I started to see the major shift, almost as if Black people and Black businesses do not belong in certain spaces. It’s made beyond crystal clear,” he said. “Black businesses are only supposed to be in certain boxes.”
Hanson, the developer behind the Eggleston Plaza project in Jackson Ward, recalled that during his first redevelopment project years ago, a police officer arrested him while he directed traffic around a contractor’s double-parked truck as the contractor unloaded appliances into the building.
“In talking with some of my peers and colleagues who are white in the business, none of them have ever had an experience like that. Usually when a police officer sees that you are restoring a neighborhood, and that you spent the time, energy and money to bring back a neighborhood, they’re not irritated by five minutes or 10 minutes of inconvenience of having to go around a vehicle,” he said.
The way forward
Panelists said the challenges that face Black businesses could be addressed in part by people having honest discussions about race, and by businesses keeping their eye on the economics and substantive efforts to create and support a diverse workforce.
Hansboro said it’s important for white people to recognize and own the legacy of slavery and racism to build trust.
Clip 2: Richmond and Virginia history
“I think that our white counterparts really need to hear that message loud and clear that there is a historic trust issue with white people and until we have that conversation and until there can be some transparency about what has happened historically to create that distrust, I think that is how we start to really move the needle,” Hansboro said.
He added that businesses should think about how to build that trust, and also make meaningful attempts to create diverse workforces.
“I think businesses need to set diversity goals and set goals for how much money they’re going to spend in minority areas. They need to put the money where their mouth is,” Hansboro said. “Who’s bonus is going to be tied to diversity? Then we will see some changes.”
Structural challenges such as the ability to raise capital as a Black businessperson also need to be recognized and resolved. Hanson said Black businesspeople often get more unfavorable loan terms, such as higher interest rates, which sets them up to fail.
Clip 3: Structural barriers to access
“It puts you in a situation when you’re financially stressed from day one even though you have the capital. So when you’re unable to be successful under those terms when your colleagues have very favorable terms, then you become the model of failure and why banks won’t lend to Black business owners because there’s a higher failure rate,” he said. “Nobody owns up to the fact that the failure rate is exacerbated by the terms and systematic prejudice.”
Hurt said Black businesses also would benefit from being treated like any other business, where economic results are prized instead of concerns rising that stem from the skin color of the company’s owner.
“The dollar is green. It’s not white, it’s not black, it’s not anything,” she said “At the end of the day, we’re all in business to make money.”