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Black women entrepreneurs in St. Louis start small businesses to close the wealth gap

Entrepreneur and author Rebecca Clark started a company to self-publish her children's book series.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Entrepreneur and author Rebecca Clark started a company to self-publish her children's book series.

Despite shrinking income and education gaps between white and non-white families, black families in the United States still trail others in wealth accumulation, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said in a recent report.

Although black wealth increased at a faster rate than white wealth in 2016, blacks still owned less than 10 percent of whites’ wealth, according to the Fed.

Some black women entrepreneurs in St. Louis see starting their own businesses as an avenue to closing the wealth gap within their families and communities.

Related: How past housing discrimination contributed to wealth gap between blacks and whites

St. Louis children’s book author Rebecca Clark is one such entrepreneur. Clark, an undergraduate- and graduate- degree earner with a career in corporate communications, decided a year ago to combine her creative aspirations and her desire to establish wealth for her family to create Be Heard LLC, a company she created to self-publish her books.

A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City showed that black women-owned enterprises were the fastest growing businesses from 2002 to 2012 nationally.

Laying foundations

Clark published “I Dream To Be” in 2017. In the book, a girl imagines pursuing various careers. It is the first in what Clark plans to be a series called Witty Kids Club, books to inspire black kids to not only read, but also reimagine their futures — futures in which they are both successful and prosperous.

“The concept is that I wanted kids to identify with the character,” she said. “So I have two girls. The character has full hair. My daughter has full hair. All of her features are very full. So I just wanted to make sure she could see herself in the character and her friends can see themselves in the character.”

And Clark has a second motive: She wants to establish a reliable source of wealth for her kids.

“The main reason why I wanted to start my own business is because I didn’t come from wealth, Clark said. “I had two parents, they went to work every day. My mother was a school teacher and my father worked at Laclede Gas at the time.”

Wealth constitutes all you own. Your assets minus your liabilities. - Bill Emmons, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Clark said her parents, like their parents, worked diligently to provide for their families. But after giving birth to her first daughter, Clark wanted more than an income.

“I don’t want to just go to work and provide for my daughter. I want to go to work and then whenever I’m older I can leave something behind for her,” she said.

After a second child, Clark said she felt the urgency to move forward with her business, a self-funded venture. And she’s not the only one: Half of black women business owners used personal or family savings to start their business, according to the Fed report.


“The greatest financial challenges have been access to credit for growth and operations,” the report states. “(Black women) also were more likely to be discouraged borrowers, and, therefore, not applying for financing. When they did apply, they were less likely to receive funding or received less than they requested.”

But Clark hasn’t been deterred by challenges like these.

“It may be small now,” she said of her business, “But I’m taking these baby steps now so then it can grow with them and they can continue to pass it down. It’ll be a family legacy, for sure. At least, that’s my goal.”

A place to gather

Like Clark, Fatimah Muhammad is a St. Louis entrepreneur who wants to leave a legacy. She envisions her’s being a lasting mark for neighborhood.

Muhammad and her husband bought property in the Hyde Park neighborhood, a once-thriving, small community that roughtly borders Interstate 70 to the north and Palm Street to the south, because they saw the value of living there. But Muhammad said they also noticed what the community lacked — something she took notice of when running for Third Ward alderman in 2016.

“There is not a market within blocks,” she said. “There is no place for us to gather to have a cup of coffee and share ideas.”

Muhammad took up the challenge to change that by creating the framework for a coworking and coliving space called Apiary @ the Park. The hub will also have a market, retail space and meeting rooms for community groups, such as the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, of which Muhammad is vice chair.

The coworking space for this north St. Louis neighborhood is still in the early stages of development, but Muhammad hopes it contributes to the community’s socio-economic growth.

“The focus is to have a space for workers of all backgrounds to cross-pollinate ideas all under the same roof,” she said.

Dreams deferred

Hyde Park is not far from The Ville, another north St. Louis neighborhood that was once the center of a small but thriving black middle class in the early 1900s.

Washington University historian Maggie Garb says St. Louis had very prominent black-owned banks in the 1910s and 1920s.

“There was a really strong movement in St. Louis to create kind of an economic autonomy in African-American neighborhoods,” Garb said. “The fight over creating a segregation ordinance in 1915 and 1916 really mobilized black professionals, black activists to kind of turn inward and think about creating a kind of economic and political autonomy.”

For some time, Garb said banks played a role in helping black St. Louisans gain and build wealth by providing credit for homebuyers, small business people to help build a black middle class. But ultimately, she said, banks did not create an economically autonomous communities.

“So, the sort of dream of black capitalism really fell apart because of the segregated housing and credit markets in the city,” she said.


Nationally, economist Bill Emmons at the Federal Reserve Bank agrees that the context of history, even more recent history such as the 2008 financial crisis, contributes to the wealth gap. In fact, the black-white wealth gap has not recovered. According to Fed statistics, in 2007 the median wealth of blacks was nearly 14 percent that of whites.

“If we go forward to today, when there are many fewer barriers, explicit discrimination on the basis on race or ethnicity is illegal. There’s enforcement. It’s not perfect, but there is some reason to believe that we’ve come a long way in eliminating those legal or quasi-legal barriers,” Emmons said. “But there still seems to be structural and systemic factors that are holding back wealth accumulation.”

Research from Emmons and his colleagues examines the last 30 years of economic growth based on factors such as age, health, income, education and race. The clear takeaway from the study is that income and education gaps between white and non-white working class families are shrinking.

And while black college degree earners have not yet caught up with in wealth accumulation, locally, black entrepreneurs are striving to make that happen for the long term success of their families and community.

“Somebody has to do it,” Muhammed said.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborativeSharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.