After a tough year, Minnesota's Black women entrepreneurs look for ways to expand opportunity

A woman wraps pink ribbon around a hat.
Angie Hall Sandifer fastens a ribbon to the brim of a hat in order to hide a wire that gives the hat its shape in her St. Paul studio and home on Aug. 3, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

As she looks through her latest collection of hats inside her artist’s studio and home in St. Paul, Angie Hall Sandifer says that inspiration can come to her at any moment, even in challenging times.

Her business has been up and running for 16 years, but during the past year and a half, Hall Sandifer has had a lot more time to dream up new looks for her business, Angie’s Hats. She was short on customers and the occasions they dressed up for, like the Kentucky Derby, typically her biggest single moneymaking event of the year.

Even gauging customers’ reactions to her product proved difficult. “You know, masks on, the whole thing is about seeing the whole look you know, so that presented a little bit of a challenge, the distance.”

Two hands shape a large white hat.
Angie Hall Sandifer shapes a hat onto a mold inside of her studio and home in St. Paul Aug. 3, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Hall Sandifer says she’s grateful hers is among surviving Black-owned businesses. She doesn’t have employees and didn’t qualify for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program early in the pandemic. Eventually, she says she was able to secure a small PPP loan and safety supplies from Ramsey County.

For Black women entrepreneurs, the path to success can be filled with more obstacles than for people of other races. This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic and early data emerging shows the problem has worsened.

Early data gathered by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research showed 40 percent of Black businesses across the country shuttered almost immediately with the start of the pandemic. Many of those businesses were in hard-hit industries like leisure, hospitality and retail.

Shawntera Hardy co-founded Fearless Commerce in 2017 to bring more visibility to Black women business owners. She’s also an MPR Board of Trustees member. Hardy says that for years Black women have started businesses at higher rates than white men and women on the national level, but the financial sector may not see the value of taking a risk on businesses with which they may not relate or identify.

“That’s the foundational piece, it is just unlearning risk in the traditional sense and connecting because you’ve diversified your teams, invested in an inclusive mindset and you have the curiosity to understand the culture,” Hardy said.

She says as with Angie’s Hats, many Black women see a need for a product or service and work to fill that through a small business, often with few, if any, employees.

They often put up their own initial costs, and may not have the generational wealth, or relationships with bankers to be able to sustain during financial emergencies.

The most recent findings from May in the annual Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that 17 percent of Black women in the United States are in the process of starting or running a new business. That's compared to 10 percent of white women and 15 percent of white men.

Three percent of Black women manage their own companies. The study also found white women are twice as likely as Black women to be running a mature business.

Tawanna Black, founder and CEO of the Minnesota-based Center for Economic Inclusion, says it can be hard for businesses to know which government or nonprofit organization will offer assistance.

“Often we are just not in a great position to be able to, not just take advantage of those things, but know where to turn to get accurate information,” Black said.

Black says those without long-standing relationships with bankers had a hard time getting through the door in finding pandemic relief.

As more streams of help from state, local and county governments begin to trickle down from the federal government, Black says reaching business owners of color can be done more intentionally, and in a way that ensures loans and grants are being distributed more equally.

“The communities that have faced the most harm are the communities that have always faced the most harm, communities of color, and it gives us a real opportunity to examine what role entrepreneurship plays in closing racial wealth gaps, stimulating our entire economy and holding up our communities of color,” Black said.

Tawanna Black and Shawntera Hardy both say they’re also encouraged by commitments from the private sector to uplift Black businesses, especially in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, but they say the entire ecosystem of the financial sector needs to become more inclusive.

Angie Hall Sandifer is slowly reconnecting with clients, more without their masks.

”When I’m working with a customer the bigger the smile, the closer they are to what they really want.”

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