A black woman faces an uphill struggle in business
GREENVILLE, SC – As a student at Clemson University in the 90s, Nekita Sullivan and her friends had to pile into a car and drive to Greenville, Seneca or Anderson for beauty products and hair care black.
The inconvenience of traveling two or three cities for beauty treatments gave Sullivan an idea: a multi-ethnic beauty bar where college students and employees of all races and hair textures could go to the heart of downtown Clemson.
Sullivan finally achieved that dream after more than 20 years, but she had no idea how difficult it would be.
Women, especially women of color, face more barriers than their white male counterparts when opening a small business, according to Ana Parra, director of the newly opened Women’s Business Center in Greenville, SC.
For Sullivan, it took nearly three years after signing a lease in downtown Clemson, to customize her salon and open it up. It took months to find a salon manager, hairstylists, nail technicians and estheticians who could work with all hair types.
Funding was a major obstacle.
“I was turned down by several banks, couldn’t get a traditional SBA (Small Business Association) loan,” she said. business could be as profitable as his work as a physical therapist, which earns him up to $120,000 a year.
Without a loan, Sullivan used credit cards to get cash. She dipped into her savings, her retirement fund and her monthly income. She rents out her house for rental income. She moved back to her parents to cut costs.
She estimated she was over $150,000 in debt. She invested an additional $100,000 of her personal income in the salon.
Although there is a “small community” of black-owned businesses in Clemson — where orange and purple are the colors of choice — the racial biases and stereotypes often associated with the South are still present, Bryant said. Smith, a black business owner and leadership consultant. .
“We can’t pretend that people don’t make decisions based on race and culture and those kinds of factors, because people do,” Smith said.
Even with the obstacles and fears — and after 24 years like just a dream — Sullivan opened Butterfly Eco Beauty Bar in downtown Clemson on Valentine’s Day.
Then a pandemic happened – recession-level layoffs, Clemson University sent students home, the governor ordered salons to close, including Butterfly Eco.
As of September 10, Sullivan had yet to fully reopen.
Through it all, COVID-19 has shone a light on the hurdles small business owners face in opening up and staying afloat, according to Ben Smith of the Clemson Small Business Development Center. And at Clemson, COVID-19 has shown how much entrepreneurs like Sullivan depend on the student population to succeed financially.
Sullivan’s struggle to find traditional funding was not uncommon, Parra said.
White applicants are more likely to be approved for business financing at banks than their black counterparts, 80% versus 62%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank study.
Parra said this was primarily due to the fact that white businesses have traditionally been more successful and the systemic practice of banks not funding black customers, a Jim Crow-era practice that had lasting consequences.
“Historically, when it comes to communities of color, they have been underserved by traditional banking institutions…we speak to many years of people who don’t pay attention to fairness and don’t address these biases,” Parra said.
And being a woman of color means your chances of success are even more limited, according to a 2019 report from American Express. Black women-owned businesses earn less than 17% of the average annual revenue of all women-owned businesses, according to the report.
The Women’s Business Center, a Greenville-hosted small business administration program at nonprofit Community Works, aims to address those equity gaps in the upstate region, Parra said. The center mentors women, including Sullivan, who own small businesses, particularly on how to finance themselves and market themselves.
Sullivan said she spent all her money “rushing to open” the store in February, “that money had to come from somewhere, so we had to take a step back from marketing and advertising to just open” .
But Parra said presenting yourself as a woman or a business person of color is one of the strongest assets women like Sullivan have when seeking new clients.
Sullivan admitted her decision to stay “behind the scenes” and not sell herself as an owner was a mistake she made out of fear.
“Business owners like Nekita may not realize that they can bring their authenticity to their business and may shrink…they don’t realize that the greatest asset is who she is or what she brings to the business. table. And I think we would never advise anyone to hide who they are,” Parra said.
When she opened the salon, Sullivan took steps to conceal her identity, fearing that the downtown Clemson business community would perceive her as a black woman.
“I was very thorough about it. When I came here, I was always very careful not to be seen outside the front of my building, going through the back door and not identifying myself as the owner…. I didn’t want that to be a reason why people weren’t supporting me,” Sullivan said.