Black-owned businesses are growing in the United States, with Richmond ranking fifth in a 2015 Thumbtack survey naming the Top 10 Best U.S. Cities for Black Small Business Owners. The poll collected data from 18,000 small-business owners and rated the cities for friendliness, ease of starting up and whether small-business owners would encourage their peers to open businesses in their cities. Here are a few to meet:
Kishau Rogers, founder and CEO of Websmith Group, a software development company in downtown Richmond, chose to relocate her firm from Silver Springs, Maryland, to Richmond because of personal connections, location, proximity to key resources and cost of living.
“The cost of living in Richmond allows me to live the way I want to live and the cost of operating a business is reasonable here as compared with the Washington, D.C. area,” she says.
Websmith opened its doors in 2004 and has grown to 15 employees and numerous subcontractors in the past 11 years. Rogers says she bootstrapped the business, using a microloan offered to minority business owners to purchase equipment. She also has deliberately grown her company gradually.
“I own 100 percent of my company. I have a gradual growth plan — a plan for scaled growth — and every year I plan how much we will grow,” she says. “A percentage of every dollar we make goes into growing the company and to research. We are a slow-growth, big-impact company.”
This intentional approach has allowed Websmith to focus on quality of service and client retention, something Rogers takes pride in. The payoff? Attracting large clients like her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, New York Presbyterian Hospital, University of Colorado Hospital, Mt. Sinai Hospital and others. “We do a lot of work for health care and research institutions. We help them to execute their software ideas,” Rogers says.
Rogers likes being a woman-owned tech business because it positions her uniquely in the industry. “I get to stand out a little more,” she says. She has been featured in multiple regional and national publications, such as Entrepreneur.com, the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest and others. In 2015, she was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Metropolitan Business League.
Rogers says that minority entrepreneurs need to plan before before taking the leap into business ownership. She encourages all businesses to make financial projections and determine operational costs. Owners need to know “how they’re going to make money before they spend money.” She also suggests forming an informal advisory board, which will help vet ideas and avoid pitfalls.
When it comes to resources for black business owners, Rogers recommends networking and training hubs such as the Metropolitan Business League, a minority business development organization, which helps black-owned businesses connect, learn together and grow. She believes Richmond could do more to support minority businesses.
“There has to be a deliberate and intentional plan, and I don’t see that in Richmond to be honest,” she says. “But there is a huge opportunity in Richmond to create a system to allow minorities and women to more easily start businesses.”
Rogers believes that perception of minority business owners creates some challenges. As a woman-owned technology business owner, she has had to work harder to convince clients that she can provide the level of service they desire.
“We work with some of the largest hospitals in the country, and I’ve been in business 11 years and I still spend a fair amount of time trying to prove to people what I can do,” she says with a chuckle. “And there is this perception that women and minority businesses are small and ineffective, and you have to almost fight against that to the extreme.”
Successes Over 30 Years
Sharon Dabney Wooldridge, who started her company The Kleane Kare Team in 1986 with a vacuum cleaner in the back of her car, now boasts 125 employees. After years of residential cleaning, she began to pursue and win federal contracts. Her advice for minority entrepreneurs is to focus on building and developing networks.
“I encourage anyone to join their industry or professional association,” she says. “That was a big help to me. I also had a micro lender who gave me a $5,000 business loan. I recommend that [minority owners] join [The Metropolitan Business League].”
The Metropolitan Business League, which has been in business since 1971, helps minority businesses through specialty education, networking and awarding scholarships to attend training at prestigious business schools, such as Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University and the executive program offered at the University of Richmond. Woolridge won the scholarship about 10 years ago and says that the education proves invaluable.
“It was a weeklong executive program which was awesome,” she says. “It gave me more knowledge and better business acumen for all of the functions within business.”
Many small businesses begin as side endeavors, with owners who moonlight after their day jobs.
One such company is 11:11 Body Sculpting on the East End between downtown and Sandston, where bodybuilding champion Curtis Bryant and his partner, Pamela Mitter, are first-time business owners.
“We had a [bodybuilding] team for clients we were training and we talked about getting a gym eventually,” Mitter says. When a client’s father offered an opportunity to buy gym equipment, Mitter told him that they wanted to buy the entire gym.
The pair wrote a business plan, an operations plan and created financial projections for the business. The two then went to work to boost membership, the key for transition into full-time gym work. The couple also faces the challenge of raising a family together while building their new business.
“The staff is just Curtis and me,” says Mitter, laughing. “We have people who help us out. We run this at night, on the weekends and as much as we can. We work 18 hours a day between our regular jobs and the gym, and we take care of the kids.”
Because of limited availability, the duo hasn’t been able to fully utilize the resources available for minority owners — Mitter has looked into SWaM certification and is actively looking at ways to connect with the community the gym serves — but hopes to do so once Bryant works at the gym full time.
“We project that he will be in the gym [full time] by March,” Mitter says.