By Janice Hayes Kyser
As most people in the Black community can testify, Black women historically have taken care of business, holding down their families, causes and communities for generations. Despite daunting odds pitted against them in a pro-white, pro-male society, they’ve been creating jobs and building successful businesses since long before the transformative civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Editor’s note: The phrase “Black Girl Magic” has dominated social media in recent months, fueled again last month when Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama and Amanda Gorman embodied Black elegance during the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden. So this Black History Month, we focus our coverage on the women trailblazers and “sheroes” from America’s past who paved the way for Harris, Obama, Gorman and millions of other Black Girl achievers today.
For example, the nation’s first female self-made millionaire was a black woman, Madame C.J. Walker, who employed Black women and earned her fortune in the early 1900s with cosmetics and hair care products for Black women. In Los Angeles during the 1850s and 1860s, Bridget “Biddy” Mason — founder of the city’s first AME church — was one of the country’s first Black real estate entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
Given that legacy, it’s no wonder that Black women are starting businesses at a faster pace than any other racial group, according to the annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express. Since 2007, the report states, the number of firms owned by Black women has grown by 164%.
Just as they fueled the fight for social and civil rights through the 20th century, experts say Black women now are bringing that signature hustle and commitment to community to the next chapter in the fight for equality — economic justice.
“The businesses Black women open and the corporate ladders they climb are not just for themselves,” says Angela Gibson-Shaw, president of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce (GLAAACC). “They are for the good of the community. They are central to the ongoing fight for power and parity.”
Today, Black women in Los Angeles and across the country are heads of studios, boards and businesses ranging from entertainment to technology and health care. They come from different backgrounds, but they share a relentless commitment to hard work and perseverance, say those who nurture and support them.
Skip Cooper, president of the Black Business Association in L.A., says Black women have demonstrated their resilience and innate flexibility during a tough economic time for the city and the nation.
“As always, Black women have really stepped up and been creative and energetic during this pandemic,” Cooper said. “They have had to pivot and make adjustments in so many ways. A group of women restaurant owners got together and is in the midst of creating a ‘feed the hungry’ campaign. Black women are always looking beyond themselves. They are always looking out for the greater good.”
Kaya Dantzler, a grassroots organizer with “We Love Leimert” – an initiative to revitalize and preserve the arts and culture in the city’s historic Leimert Park neighborhood – says despite the challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many to stay closer to home and to “seek refuge” in their own community.
She points to woman-owned businesses in Leimert Park such as Nappily Naturals, a natural beauty and health store, and Sika Shop, an authentic African art gallery featuring clothing and artifacts, as examples of Black-run businesses that are flourishing, creating jobs and providing much-needed services to the city’s Black community.
“When Black women-owned businesses are supported, communities fair better because women think more holistically about all members of the community,” Dantzler said.
Aminah Muhammad, owner of Queen Aminah, a clothing and art store in Leimert Park, agrees.
“I feel as a black woman you have to expose others and teach them how to be creative and to make things with their hands, which will help them socially, emotionally and financially,” said Muhammad, president of the Leimert Park Village Merchants Association. “It is about creating unity in our community and tapping into our power as Black women. We have to look at each other as family. We have to help and support each other, period.”
While researchers say Black women are using their gifts and grit to uplift their communities, the struggle is real. According to the U.S. Census, on average, Black women were paid 63% of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2019. In addition, systemic racism means it is harder for Black women to get funding and access the tools, resources and mentors they need to be successful, experts say.
That’s why GLAAACC conducts programs to help Black entrepreneurs and businesswomen position themselves for success. Gibson-Shaw says women outnumber men in the organization’s Business Evolution Program, which provides intensive information, technical assistance, financial management, contracting, access to capital, sales and marketing, social media and everything new businesses need to know and grow.
Supporting and promoting Black entrepreneurs who are establishing their own businesses is only one aspect of GLAAACC ‘s mission to advocate and promote the economic growth and development of African-American businesses in the city, Gibson-Shaw said. The organization also has a program to help women who are climbing the corporate ladder access the tools they need to reach the C-suite.
“It is all about helping each other learn, develop and grow so that we can create opportunities for ourselves and our communities, whether they are in our own businesses or in the halls of corporate America,” she said.
That’s something that resonates with Muhammad.
“As a small, Black woman-owned business, I know what it is like to struggle; I know what it is like to stay awake nights and I know what it takes to make it,” she said.
Muhammad, affectionately known as “Queen Aminah,” has been in business on Degnan Boulevard since 2009. The challenges of being a Black woman business owner are hardly new to her, as she was one of the first African Americans to have a clothing boutique in Beverly Hills in the 1970s. Through economic and social ups and downs this entrepreneur, mother, wife and community activist has pursued her passion with fervor and faith.
While the current pandemics have hit the Black community hard, Muhammad believes that Black consciousness has reemerged.
“I think staying home and evaluating ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually has helped the community to see that there is no place like home,” she said. “I am seeing people from San Bernardino, the San Fernando Valley and Orange County coming into the community because they want to recycle Black dollars. I think in many ways these pandemics have brought us back to basics.”
James V. Burks, retired director of special projects for the city of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, hopes she is right.
“It’s time for us to refocus Black spending in the Black community,” Burks said. “We need to extend our creativity and cultural hospitality to each other.”