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St. Louis Nonprofit Helps Minority Entrepreneurs Stay In Business During Pandemic

St. Louis-area businesses remain closed as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. Weeks of reduced income, or none at all, has stretched small businesses thin.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Minority entrepreneurs are crediting Habitat for Neighborhood Business, a St. Louis nonprofit, with helping them stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Leslie Christian-Wilson, owner of Diversity Gallery hair salon and boutique in St. Louis, has worked hard to keep her business going in the past year. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, she’s seen appointments canceled and lost 60% of her revenue.

Selling natural hair care products and business from the boutique have helped. But she’s been able to keep her head above water with the help of the nonprofit Habitat for Neighborhood Business, which helped her find grants and other resources to stay open.

Since 2006, the nonprofit has paired entrepreneurs of color with professional mentors in their field. It also brings in St. Louis University students from the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business to assess their business and how to improve it.

“The executive directors, they are really like our aunties,” Christian-Wilson said. “They’re really out there ‘auntying’ for us. They’re making sure that, OK, do you know about this program? They’re bringing in bankers, like Enterprise Bank, so that we can sit with them and talk through our issues. Because our issues are not like issues of these conglomerates. We don’t have the resources to come in and put collateral down.”

Habitat For Neighborhood Business works with 40 minority-owned businesses, all of which have managed to say open during the pandemic, said its executive director, Linda Jones.

Leslie Christian-Wilson owns Diversity Gallery a hair salon and boutique in St. Louis.
Provided | Leslie Christian-Wilson
Leslie Christian-Wilson owns Diversity Gallery a hair salon and boutique in St. Louis.

The nonprofit helps entrepreneurs of color secure grants and other financial assistance and helps them shift their businesses to online business models.

Jones said that turned an event planner’s business around after the company’s events were canceled.

“It’s not over yet,” Jones recalled telling the owner. “Let’s think about this. People are using Zoom. They need backdrops. They need setups. There are other industries that need your services. What you do and how you do it, we just have to think outside of that box.”

Part of the nonprofit’s approach is making sure the entrepreneurs it works with support each other.

“We took one caterer and two restaurants and provided meals for our business owners,” Jones said. “We provided them with tickets so that they can get help from that.”

Christian-Wilson said having people in her corner during the pandemic has kept her spirits up.

“They don’t leave you hanging,” she said. “They’re vested in you succeeding. And they really from their heart want you to succeed. Some people get these programs, but it’s a job for them. ‘Well, OK, you didn’t qualify. Sorry, check next time.’ No. They’re attached to the outcome of your success, and they show it.”

Christian-Wilson has been an entrepreneur for more than two decades. In that time, she’s experienced a recession and now a pandemic. Despite the obstacles she’s faced, she’s optimistic her business will bounce back.

“I was able to persevere due to the loyal St. Louis customer base that I have aligned myself with and call my customer friends,” Christian-Wilson said. “They’re very supportive. They’re very loyal, and they want to see us succeed. They want to see us make it.”

Jones understands the stress firsthand. She owned a real estate company for 26 years and felt the blow of the 2009 economic downturn. As a Black businesses owner, she didn’t have such support when she started. That’s why she wants to help other entrepreneurs of color.

“I know what they are going through,” Jones said. “Being an entrepreneur is a lonely existence on a lot of levels. There are not enough of us in a group that’s going to help. So what we try to do is we try to let them know first that we care.”

Habitat for Neighborhood Business is looking for more business owners to serve as mentors.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.