Black businesses are rising, and three St. Louis women are helping drive that growth
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Ronda Walker worked as the nursing director at a nursing home in the St. Louis region. Walker soon began planning her exit strategy, because she could not face seeing clients die and nursing staff fall seriously ill. The final straw was the day she suffered a stroke in early summer 2020.
During recovery, the north St. Louis County native spent time wondering what she would do next. In November 2020, Walker purchased a building in the Grove neighborhood that she now calls Creole with a Splash of Soul restaurant.
But opening a Creole-Southern eatery during a public health crisis and an economic downturn was not easy. Walker could not obtain bank financing.
“I was told that the restaurant industry was pretty much ravaged … especially with the COVID pandemic and all the closings, so it just was not much out there to get,” Walker said.
Walker used about $30,000 of her personal savings and about $10,000 in family loans to start her business.
For many Black entrepreneurs, acquiring capital from lenders or private investors is their biggest hurdle in running a successful business. That has made it harder for Black business owners to keep their doors open.
According to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the number of Black-owned businesses has increased by about 30% nationwide since before the pandemic — and Black women are behind that growth.
Some days Creole with a Splash of Soul welcomes a heavy flow of traffic, and other days business is light. To make sure the doors stay open and her employees are paid, Walker sometimes picks up nursing shifts.
“Every single dollar that I earned as a nurse, I put back into my business,” Walker said.
Walker has been serving Creole shrimp and creamy grits, seasoned fried catfish and Cajun chicken pasta since May 2021. The business brought in about $270,000 in seven months.
Black women often are heads of households, and they are shifting from working in industries where they make less than their counterparts into running their own businesses, said Gisele Marcus, diversity, equity and inclusion professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“COVID has kind of shined a light on the fact that there's other options out there, of which entrepreneurship is one,” Marcus said.
In St. Louis, some Black women entrepreneurs started out making goods as a hobby before the pandemic and once many businesses closed, they started their own companies.
Rachel Burns took her hobby to the next level in May 2020 by opening Bold Spoons Creamery.
In 2017, the St. Louisan started making ice cream for her friends at gatherings. Since her guests enjoyed the sweet dessert, she began perfecting her recipes. In early March 2020, people could not go out to purchase ice cream, so Burns saw it as an opportunity to go directly to customers. Burns began passing out ice cream to neighbors to make them aware of her new company.
“I would just say ‘Hi, my name is Rachel, I live down the street around the corner and I just started this business and I wanted to give you a little treat, I hope you like it’,” Burns said. “And later that day, I started getting online orders.”
Early on, she produced mint, goat cheese and fig and lavender ice cream in bulk out of a commercial kitchen in downtown St. Louis to sell online and at Tower Grove Farmers Market. And in July 2020, her ice creams were picked up by Schnucks Markets as a way to support Black-owned companies in the region. Her products are now sold in over 20 local markets and shops.
The financial investment consultant credits the pandemic for her success. Last year the company brought in about four times the sales as it made in the first seven months of its opening.
“We've never had a business when COVID hasn't been part of our normal operation, so it would have been neat to see what it could have been without it,” Burns said. “But maybe the fact that everyone was at home at that time, that probably is what made it [the business] possible.”
A Florissant resident and entrepreneur, Tiffany Wesley also found success during the pandemic. She created facial soaps to treat her breakouts from a hormonal imbalance and body creams to help soothe her daughter’s skin while dealing with eczema.
“It was a hobby for me, something I enjoyed, a passion,” Wesley said. “My daughter really sparked me and threw me into it, so I was like, ‘if this is helping her it is surely going to help others’.”
A few years later, she began making body butters, oils and cleaners in her basement and then opened Pure Vibes online, but she didn’t see much growth until March 2020.
“It was just like perfect timing,” Wesley said. “We were in a pandemic, soap was scarce, sanitizer was scarce, you couldn’t find anything in regards to just basic sanitation and health and hygiene products,” Wesley said.
In 2019, her company brought in about $35,000 in sales and in 2020, nearly $85,000. In 2021, she opened a storefront and spa in University City and is considering opening a second location.
As an entrepreneur, Wesley is flourishing. However, she did face a few obstacles at first. Wesley said even with good credit, she could not get a bank loan with a decent interest rate. She ended up applying for grants and loans from community investors, and she received about $100,000.
Despite the challenges, Wesley said she sees her business as a way to inspire a generation of Black women entrepreneurs in St. Louis.
“Being able to see people who look like you, who come from similar backgrounds from you and just being able to transform communities, especially when you grow up in areas that don't have a lot of resources, it shows other people that you can really do it,” Wesley said.
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