Earrings, artwork and homemade soaps line the shelves of a new boutique on Bardstown Road.
All are products from local entrepreneurs who benefit from the visibility of the high-traffic corridor.
But unlike similar shops that dot Louisville’s trendy neighborhoods, every vendor at this store is Black.
That’s an intentional move by Pocket Change, an initiative from local nonprofit Change Today, Change Tomorrow that aims to increase support for Black business owners who typically don’t have the resources and support they need to thrive.
The space is one of at least half a dozen local incubators and accelerators that have launched in the wake of Louisville’s racial justice protests, each with the shared goal of growing Black-owned businesses throughout the city.
All the initiatives are Black-led, and several have received support from deep-pocketed institutions — including Humana, Yum Brands and Louisville Metro Government — who see the programs as an opportunity to reverse course on historically racist policies and practices that kept Black people and businesses from building wealth.
For decades, national research has shown that Black entrepreneurs most frequently lack access to loans, training and networking opportunities — inequities that have contributed to long-lasting wealth gaps between Black and white people.
In Louisville today, 2.4% of businesses are Black owned, though Black people make up 22.4% of the population, according to city data. And nationally, the median net worth of white families is nearly eight times the median net worth of Black families, according to the Federal Reserve.
“We know over centuries that Black people have not been able to have the choices and wealth-building opportunities that white people and other people have had,” said Rebecca Fleischaker, co-chief of Louisville Forward, which is putting $100,000 toward a minority business incubator. “And so I think that we have to be intentional about how we can create new opportunities and different ways of looking at things that tear down those barriers.”
People behind the new initiatives say they’re a good start toward correcting racist systems that have held back Black people for decades.
But they also question why it took national protests over several high-profile police killings of Black people, including Breonna Taylor in Louisville, to spark such a response.
“At the height of the uprising, as a business owner, I saw an increase of intentional sales,” said Nannie Croney, deputy director of Change Today, Change Tomorrow and owner of Dope Designs by Nannie. ”… But I think for me it was disheartening because it’s like, why did it take this?”
DISRUPTING THE SYSTEM
Taylor Ryan, executive director and founder of Change Today, Change Tomorrow, said the 2.4% figure likely underestimates the number of Black-owned businesses in Louisville because many Black people who sell products and services from their homes are not incorporated.
That’s something she and Croney are trying to resolve through Pocket Change, which offers free monthly classes for Black entrepreneurs.
The nonprofit’s first group of about 20 students recently finished a six-month course, and each will soon receive up to $5,000 for their business, with no strings attached, Ryan said.
Chelsea Ellis, an owner of Jim Reynolds Asphalt Contractor in Smoketown, said the company started by her great uncle could have benefited from such an investment.
In 30 years of business, the company has “never had the opportunity to get funding or loans from any bank,” she said. ”… What we’ve accomplished in 30 years, if we’d had the resources, we could have accomplished in half the time.”
For the entire economy to be successful, Ellis said, everyone must do more to support Black businesses.
“You solve so many other problems when you allow minority businesses to have a piece of the pie,” she said. “The more we’re able to get bigger jobs, the more we’re able to pay our employees better wages, they’re able to buy homes, things like that. It all works hand-in-hand when you are able to get more people involved versus keeping the money in one group of people.”
Pocket Change at 1753 Bardstown Road is a business that features products such as coffee and tea as well as apparel and artwork crafted by Black Louisvillians. It was created by Change Today, Change Tomorrow. The space also features event space and vender booths with ‘maker spaces.‘
Timalyn Bowens, owner of Bowens Tax & Bookkeeping Solutions, said she initially took for granted the connections she made as a student at Bellarmine University, where she had access to decision-makers at accounting firms across the city.
“I had somebody who’s essentially holding the door open for me,” Bowens said of the university’s internship and mentorship programs, which helped her build a career before starting a business of her own. “I was thinking everybody has the same thing.”
Such networking and training opportunities are something more Black business owners need, Bowens and others agree.
That’s what several new incubators and accelerators hope to provide.
At 12th and Jefferson, AMPED founder Dave Christopher has opened the Russell Tech Business Incubator, which will offer coaching, online coursework and seed funding to new and existing businesses.
Through its Minority Business Accelerator, Greater Louisville Inc. — the city’s chamber of commerce — plans to connect established entrepreneurs with people who can provide marketing, legal and accounting expertise.
And on East Market Street, the NuLu Diversity Empowerment Council is working to open an incubator and co-working space that will house up to 12 minority-owned companies.
The council formed last fall following protests in the majority white business district and has already held diversity trainings for owners in the area.
Like GLI’s accelerator, the council’s incubator will connect new businesses with consultants who can help get them off the ground, said André Wilson, president of the council and CEO of Style Icon Group.
But that can’t be the end of support the businesses get, he said. White-led institutions also have to step up to work with the businesses and help them grow.
“Let’s say we have 200 new Black businesses established,” Wilson said. “The numbers will be better, but those businesses will fail in three to five years (if) those businesses aren’t getting contracts. … It needs to be a joint effort between the rising business incubators and corporations and the city.”
JOINING THE BUILDING BOOM
In recent months, at least three initiatives have launched to specifically grow Black contractors and connect them with other companies.
The Plan Room, a business accelerator from OneWest, a nonprofit community developer, opened in February with support from the University of Louisville’s College of Business.
Donovan Taylor, manager of The Plan Room, said its goal is to help build capacity among Black businesses so they can take on larger construction and engineering contracts, especially as a building boom continues in the majority Black neighborhoods of the West End.
“It’s essential to have our local contractors participating in those local developments and getting prepared to participate in those developments,” he said.
In September, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced the creation of an Equity in Contracting and Procurement Task Force that seeks to increase supplier diversity.
And in April, Louisville Forward — the city’s economic development arm — granted $50,000 to Buy Black Lou to help establish the Black Contractors Network, a website through which businesses can advertise their services.
Buy Black Lou, founded by Tanika Bryant, started as a Facebook group in 2019 that has grown to more than 29,000 members.
Bryant has since created a website where people can search for Black-owned businesses of any category and has established the Black Business Association, which provides resources for owners wanting to plan, launch and grow their businesses.
Like others who spoke with The Courier Journal, Bryant said she’s thankful for the organizations that have “stepped up and decided to do something” in the last year — as long as they’re serious about following through.
“It shouldn’t have taken civil unrest in our city, being turned upside down, for folks to look and say there’s obviously some great disparities that need to be handled,” she said. ”… It will be interesting to see which organizations and companies will keep their word and continue moving forward in support of the Black community.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press; Louisville Courier-Journal, Bailey Loosemore