The Black Women's Expo and Job Fair began as a breakfast gathering in 2013 — 60 business-minded, African-American women, nibbling and networking in a conference room in St. Paul.
"It was supposed to be small," said Shatona Kilgore-Groves, founder and owner of the event. "I was thinking something relatively intimate that would allow us to connect and share knowledge."
But the expo is now one of the the largest events in Minnesota for black women. Each year organizers have upgraded to bigger venues to accommodate the surging attendance, growing number of vendors and speakers, and new additions, like live performances and fitness classes. In 2014, attendance spiked to 500. Last year, it climbed to 750.
On Saturday, 1,000 women are expected to converge on the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center in St. Paul for the free event centered on economic empowerment and financial stability. And more than 120 African-American female entrepreneurs will showcase their wares, an increase from 2015's 70 vendors.
A lack of services and support for black women entrepreneurs, compounded by double-digit unemployment rates, drive the expo's growth, said Kilgore-Groves, a former college professor.
"A lot of times we don't get the loans, and we don't get the knowledge that we need," the 41-year-old St. Paulite said, adding even broader initiatives to bolster women-owned businesses miss the mark by failing to identify and address barriers specific to minorities, such as marred credit histories from the financial strain of single parenthood.
The expo offers exposure for black-owned businesses, networking and camaraderie. In addition to the vendors, the one-day event lists speakers, like author Gigi Bisong, and Lissa L. Jones, host of KMOJ's Urban Agenda, health educators, and neo-soul crooner Traiveon Dunlap, among other emerging musicians. More than a dozen employers, including major corporations, like Apple and Wells Fargo, will be recruiting during the five-hour expo.
"This event is unique and most needed in Minnesota; it's the one event that tries to uplift and support the community," said La Juana Whitmore, a small business consultant and board member of the Metro Independent Business Association. "African-American women have been starving for this type of enrichment and opportunity to learn and create new relationships." Those partnerships, Whitmore noted, are key to helping the black business community grow.
Organizer Kilgore-Groves, a self-proclaimed "business activator" and serial entrepreneur, has helmed small businesses since age 18 — selling Avon and braiding hair on Fisk University's campus as an undergrad. Even as she worked as a teacher and school social worker, Kilgore-Groves dabbled in side ventures. Now in addition to the expo, Kilgore-Groves runs monthly entrepreneurial training meetings, where women impart business know-how, set measurable goals and hold each other accountable.
The events could foster a culture of collaboration and business partnerships that could in turn attract more customers, said Whitmore, who is also the owner of Black Twin Cities, a digital directory of black-owned firms and events in the state.
The Black Women's Expo is open to everyone and is a rare opportunity to see a range of ventures fronted by black women — from health and beauty to jewelry and clothing to legal services.
"For a lot of them, it's their big day, their debut in the community," Kilgore-Groves said.
One of the vendors is Alicia Davis, a 34-year-old data entry specialist at Stanley Security. She launched Hidden Notes, a scented oil business, out of her St. Paul home last fall.
"I am beyond excited because there will be so many opportunities for exposure and networking," she said. "It would be great to connect with some boutique owners to get my product on shelves in a store. That would be huge." Davis also attends the monthly meetings, which infused her with the confidence to push her oil products and market her handmade quilts.
Saturday's expo's theme is "Change Is Gonna Come."
"It'll be a showcase of the African-American business woman and her talents and a way to keep the black dollar in the community," Kilgore-Groves said, "it'll also be a place to come together and heal, considering what's gone on in the past week."