Stephanie Aris, a former ICU nurse started her candle-making business in the summer of 2020. It was a way to deal with the depression she was feeling while working at the hospital during the pandemic.
A year and a half later, Aris’ business, Helping Hands for Tranquility, has done well enough that she was able to quit her job at the hospital and devote herself to making candles full time.
Aris said she made the leap when she realized that her work schedule was hindering opportunities to show her products. Transitioning away from nursing — and a steady paycheck — was scary, but it’s paid off. She’s able to make more at vendor shows than she would at the hospital, and with less stress.
“People have really shown up for my business, what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Many minority entrepreneurs who started up their businesses in the last year and a half are finding that they want to do what Aris did — make their pandemic-era ventures into their permanent vocations. But not all have succeeded. Part of the challenge is grappling with a whole new set of concepts — marketing, branding, credit and grants — that aren’t easy to grasp for first-time business owners.
Joseph Williams, a capital access team lead and business advisor at the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, said that people who were starting businesses often don’t think about things like growth strategies or marketing.
“Every business should have business credit … But how many of us are taught to do that? We’re taught to just go into the business, work work work work, and to concentrate on that aspect,” said Williams.
Williams said that business owners should be thinking in advance, taking out loans when they don’t need the money, rather than waiting until they do.
Jessica Persad and Kari Herndon, both nurses who worked through COVID, decided to open Cream Coffee in Norwich in November 2021. The coffee shop gave them something to look forward to, Persad said, after spending so much time under pressure in the ICU.
The two women told CT Examiner that owning the business presented a totally different kind of challenge — developing a new skill set practically on the fly.
“We’re basically learning as we go,” said Herndon.
Several of the business owners, like Persad, credited some of their success to mentorship from other minority business owners.
Persad said that she and Herndon started the coffee shop with encouragement from her brother, who used to own the store next door to the coffee shop. The two women source their coffee from Craftsmen Cliff Roasters in Norwich and their tea from INI Sips in New Britain, both of which are minority-owned.
“Nobody was coming out of the box saying, Hey, female owned business by two minority women, let us help you out,” said Persad. “But we had other minority-owned business owners coming to us and giving us advice, which is really great.”
Nikki Forbes-Shaw, a nurse and founder of ReFramed, which designs and sells eyeglass frames, said she partnered with an optometrist who helped her place her eyeglass frames in various optical shops.
“She’s an African American business owner. She owns her optical shop. So, just kind of sitting with her … we’ll have conversations for like an hour, we have meetings … she just gave me some insight, just in terms of the optical scene,” said Forbes-Shaw.
“The hardest I’ve ever worked in my life”
Although mentorship from other minority business owners helped the pandemic-era entrepreneurs branch out into new areas, several said they wished they’d received more information about other types of support — such as the loans and grants available to them during the pandemic.
Some said they simply weren’t aware that the grants existed, or assumed they wouldn’t qualify because of the length of time they had been open.
Forbes-Shaw said she was initially skeptical of the PPP program. She said she hadn’t looked into it in-depth, and that she was wary of giving out her social security number and other personal information.
It wasn’t until she read about it later that she realized that she could have qualified for a grant.
“I was like – wait, this really was true … And I was actually one of the people who could have [gotten it], and I didn’t know.”
Brittany Curry, who owns Love on You, a hair salon in Norwich, said she received a $5,000 small business grant in 2021, but that she didn’t get an SBA loan, and was denied a bank loan. She said she supported the business using her own savings and the COVID-19 stimulus checks from the federal government.
Curry said that while she heard about grants available for minority-owned and women-owned businesses, she said you have to know where to look for them.
“I don’t really feel like there is enough knowledge out there to know where to go to get the funding, or even the basic business knowledge — you know, how to get your EIN number or just basic business principles that you need to know with going into business,” said Curry.
Anne-Marie Knight, executive director of the Black Business Alliance, said that only a small percent of black businesses who applied for federal grant money received it. She attributed this to a combination of two factors — a lack of information in the Black community, and a mistrust of funds offered through the federal and state government.
“If you’re not sure what this is going to mean for you in the long run — ‘Is there going to be some blow back on the back end?’ ‘Will I have to pay it back?’ and ‘They say, it’s a grant. Is it really a grant?’ You know, those kinds of questions — a lot of folks just don’t take the time to go through the paperwork,” she said.
“I wish I did [apply], because I figured that since my business wasn’t really in business for a long time, that I wouldn’t qualify for it,” said Alisha Moten, owner of Golden Adorns Living, which sells travel-themed candles, scents and tote bags.
Dan Jenkins, who owns Black Dragon Martial Arts Academy in Norwich, said that he looked into the grants that were available from COVID, but decided not to take any. He said that the business wasn’t eligible for PPP loans because it didn’t have employees. In terms of other grants, he said, he was only eligible for about $1,000, which wasn’t going to be enough.
“We just prayed on it,” he said.
Jenkins, who is Black and Eastern Pequot, and who has owned Black Dragon studio since 1995, said he didn’t feel there was a lot of support in general for minority-owned business owners in Norwich. He said the number of Black-owned businesses in the area were few and far between.
But Jenkins, whose father was the first Black police officer in Norwich and whose grandfather owned a package store in the city, also said the community had always been supportive of his business, and particularly during COVID, when he had to transition to giving karate classes via an online app.
“That was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” said Jenkins.
“A very, very, very, very competitive market”
Williams and Knight said there needed to be greater access to both funding and networks for minority entrepreneurs. Knight noted the need for technical assistance to help people turn their business ideas into a concrete reality — something that her organization tries to provide.
One of the problems with the grant funding, said Williams, is that there simply isn’t enough of it.
He said that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, large corporations, along with the federal and state governments, began offering grants to minority-owned businesses. But the corporations don’t always advertise the grants openly. He said that very small shops have to compete with larger companies or firms that, although their profits are in the tens of millions, are still considered “small businesses” by the federal government.
“There’s so much demand, but so little dollars allocated,” he said. “And there’s a very, very, very, very competitive market.”
Williams said networks with local chambers of commerce and rotary clubs can also help spread information about grants. The Black Business Alliance, said Knight, has been forging those relationships.
“The traditional Chamber of Commerce is a social network unto itself. And so if you don’t look like the rest of the network, you don’t so easily fit into the network,” said Knight. “But what I’ve found is … that they have opened doors and opened up to engaging Black and Brown businesses on a larger scale, to really having a dialogue about creating opportunities.”
There are challenges. Angela Adams, executive director of the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber works alongside organizations like the Women’s Business Development Council, and that they try to provide assistance to all businesses.
However, Adams said she believed that small businesses in general were feeling disconnected because of a shortage of personnel both at the Chamber of Commerce and at other organizations serving small businesses.
“I think it’s just getting harder for all businesses in order to connect, because everybody’s short of staff right now,” said Adams.
“We did a lot of digging”
Williams said that business owners need to actively seek out resources.
Some — like Oddette Staple-Brown, who founded the candle making business Oh D’Luxe Candles + Co — say that they have done their research, and that it has paid off.
“I realized that there’s a lot of help. Not only the local chamber of commerce, but organizations that do want to help, especially black-owned businesses, especially minority-owned businesses, especially women that businesses like in that category,” she said. “I’ve been finding a lot of courses that I’ve been taking that I can just take on my computer. And that’s helping me to understand the business side.”
But Staple-Brown added that one centralized place where she could find information about running a business and applying for grants would be helpful, as well as someone who could walk her through the pros and cons of applying for a loan.
Persad, the owner of Cream Coffee in Norwich, said that while she knows the state has resources online, she’d want to see information more geared toward minorities, and a little easier for someone with no business background to follow.
“When we were starting our business, we did a lot of digging. Like how do we do this? How do we do this?” said Persad. “For somebody who’s brand new to business, it would have been nice to just have it a little bit more user-friendly.”
Finally, Knight said it was important to have a long-term strategy so that the push to support Black businesses in the wake of the protests over the summer of 2020 does not die out.
“I do feel as though folks who are being real allies, and they are considering where they spend their money – they are looking for ways to support Black business,” she said. “So it’s on both sides of the fence that we have to also be more visible, and that those who’ve made a commitment to diversify their spending and to support Black and Brown business, that they continue to do that on a regular basis.”
Williams also emphasized the need to support local Black businesses.
“We’ve got to continue to get the word out,” added Williams. “It takes the village, the community to keep that business afloat — and the pandemic proved that.”