It’s often been said that black-owned businesses play a crucial role in generating employment and wealth in their local communities.
This key role has been recognized in recent years by social justice campaigners who have called on consumers from all backgrounds to support black enterprises as an effective means of tackling racial and economic inequality.
But despite this forward momentum, which saw a peak last year in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd, black entrepreneurs still face several challenges with lack of access to capital and networks being among the most significant.
According to recent data from the US Federal Reserve, more than half of companies that have black owners were turned down for loans, a rate twice as high as white business owners.
And although black consumer spending power has been estimated at $1.2 trillion annually, very little of that money flows back into black businesses.
One woman was determined to do something about it.
When entrepreneur friends of Atlanta resident Dr. Lakeysha Hallmon needed support showcasing their talents and businesses she decided to act.
Hallmon, affectionately known as Dr. Key, was working as a researcher in the Georgia Department of Education when, in April 2016, she launched social enterprise The Village Market ATL.
Through The Village Market ATL, whose motto is ‘support is a verb’, entrepreneurs are provided with an opportunity to showcase their products and services to prospective consumers who want to buy from black-owned businesses.
Three big events are hosted throughout the course of the year – one in the spring, one in summer, and a Black Friday Festival—which takes place each November.
To date, these events have showcased hundreds of businesses, who specialize in things such as Afrocentric clothing/merchandise, all-natural body and hair products, and foods. Many of them have averaged $3-6k in sales within 5 hours of selling their products or services.
Although the Covid pandemic put a hold on these events plans are being developed to re-introduce them later this year when it is safe to do so.
As well as the events, The Village Market also leads campaigns. Its recent Buy Black In August campaign, which encouraged consumers to buy products from black-owned businesses for every week of that month generated $1.8 million.
Hallmon’s underlying philosophy is a simple one – with the right preparation, planning, and support from the community underrepresented entrepreneurs can build thriving enterprises. And it’s an approach that has seen her widely lauded across the country.
“The overall mission of The Village Market is to be a flagship for black entrepreneurs, providing them with the resources and the capital they need to scale their businesses and support individuals who have a deep commitment to buying from black businesses,” she says.
“Across the country, there are over 2.6 million black-owned businesses. 2.5 million of those businesses are run by sole openers or sole traders. If you were to ask me the question ‘why are black businesses having a hard time scaling or often facing a struggle just to stay open it is possibly because they do not have the operational support they need to expand their business.”
As well as offering assistance in the form of providing operational and legal services to business owners who otherwise might not be able to afford them, The Village Market’s 12-week incubator program helps to equip them with the knowledge and skills to navigate some of the structural obstacles they face. It’s a program that includes detailed training on areas such as customer discovery, marketing, and fundraising.
“It’s a really critical part of what we do” Hallmon explains. “I believe that if we do a good job of teaching entrepreneurs how to be self-sufficient then the capital the cash flow will come. But what makes us unique is that we move businesses beyond theory, beyond teaching to environments where they can apply what they learn. Our marketplace events put them right in front of customers where they are selling their products. I’m a former educator so The Village Market for me is all about business owners putting into practice what they learn in our incubators.”
Unlike more traditional business incubator programs, there is also focus on mental health. Each week that the program runs entrepreneurs are paired with a mental health practitioner to talk about how they are functioning as people, not just as business owners.
The decision to introduce mental health into the training was shaped by Hallmon’s experience of creating The Village Market.
“Building the Village Market wasn’t a quick process” she recalls. “My first endeavor wasn’t to scale this big marketplace. I simply wanted to help one business become successful and then from there help a second one. But it was extremely stressful. I was supporting black businesses before, colloquially speaking, it was a cool thing to do. So at the time, it was very difficult to get buy-in from corporate partners Into what I was building.
“This forced me into a bootstrapping model where I continued to work a full-time job as a researcher for the Georgia Department of Education, allowing me to save and invest in building the Village. I had a caseload of schools that I had to manage during the day and at night I had a caseload of businesses that I was working with.
“I was very appreciative of having a traditional professional career. It helps me build a strong business and the research skills I learned taught me that everything I build should be measurable. However, I did experience grave levels of anxiety and stress while building The Village Market. And this compelled me to ask other entrepreneurs not about their business but about them.”
She continues: “From my research, I found that some were experiencing things such depression and decision fatigue. Others were feeling anxiety and burnout for the first time. So my job as leader of the village is to not only care about the business but also care about the business owner. That’s why we have taken a holistic approach to community building and training.
“Everything I do is informed from personal experience. It’s the only way I know that I’m doing something impactful. And business owners have shared a great level of appreciation about the thoughtfulness of including a wellness component into our program.”
Hallmon is, without doubt, a much-admired figure in Atlanta, a city renowned for being home to some of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs in the United States. But her journey to entrepreneurial success began as a young girl in rural Mississippi.
She grew up seeing the benefits of people in her community bartering, trading, and working with each other to meet each other’s needs.
“For a number of reasons Mississippi has been stigmatized due to the level of racism that exists in the state” she recalls. “But I was not affected by the racism that was prevalent. What I knew of Mississippi was the community that supported me and supported my grandmother who was also an entrepreneur. My grandmother is an extremely hard-working entrepreneur. She’s 83 years old and what I know of customer service and working extremely hard to exceed expectations I learned from her.”
Hallmon continues: “She was never satisfied with just being an ok seamstress. Whether it was the wedding dresses that she made, the choir robes or the school uniforms she made she always wanted people to get her best work.
“It was these experiences as I was growing up that informed my desire to build community where people could be supportive of each other. Looking back it’s quite amazing that these two things could be happening side by side. On the one hand was a state fractured by the level of racism and hate that exists there and on the other a clear example of the type of community that I wanted to build.”
Given these close supportive networks was it hard to leave Mississippi?
“It was mainly hard to leave because my mother was sick. But she actually pushed me to leave. She’d always tell me that ‘Mississippi cannot contain your gifts.’ I think about that all the time. She pushed me to get out of the state and explore different territories so that I could live a life full of purpose.”
Dr. Key’s sense of purpose continues to grow. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have re-energized her sense of purpose. Many others now share Hallmon’s view that where you spend your money can be an important form of advocacy.
Last November, despite the pandemic, she launched The Village at Ponce City Market in Atlanta offering a variety of products, including clothing, home goods, and body products amongst others.
“It’s our first brick and mortar location” she explains. “It’s a curated site that represents twenty-nine different black businesses and runs 7 days a week. We rotate the businesses and services that are present in the store every 4 to 6 months. So what that means is that in the course of a year over a hundred black businesses will have exposure to being in a retail environment.”
Following the successful launch of the ground-breaking store and the many campaigns by people who share Hallmon’s goal of encouraging consumers to buy black, The Village Market founder says she is cautiously optimistic that underrepresented entrepreneurs will get the support and profile they need to flourish.
“Months after the horrific murder of George Floyd and the protests it inspired the level of pain that led people to want to do something and support black businesses is still there. And conversations are still happening about how to support black businesses. I’d actually wondered what would happen after May when George Floyd was killed.”
She continues: “Many of us who are deeply committed to doing this work and who have been doing it for years hoped it wasn’t a trend. But it’s now March 2021 and those conversations are still happening about how to support black businesses so yes, I am cautiously optimistic.”