PITTSBORO — Kombucha-making, sound therapy and trucking are just three types of businesses led by Black entrepreneurs in Chatham County. While they’re impacting the local economy in a myriad of ways, decades of segregation and other unfavorable policies have created barriers for other entrepreneurs of color.
Now, as economic development projects and population growth loom here, advocates — such as the Pittsboro-based nonprofit Wealth through Entrepreneurship for Black and Brown Businesses — are urging intentional and robust support for those entrepreneurs.
WEBB Squared, as it’s better known, held its first “State of Black Entrepreneurship” Friday at the Chatham Agriculture & Conference Center. As participants entered the room, they were greeted by several WEBB Squared-assisted entrepreneurs showcasing their products and services.
The presentation, which was attended by Chatham political leaders, officials and business owners, shared data across a range of social and economic indicators to highlight barriers to opportunities for Black and Brown entrepreneurs.
The day’s purpose: to raise awareness and cultivate conversations about those barriers and to explore ecosystems to support businessmen and women living in rural counties in North Carolina.
“The racial wealth gap grows from centuries of a systemic race-structured economic order embedded in institutional culture, policies, social norms and belief systems,” Stephanie Terry, the co-founder of WEBB Squared, told attendees at the start of Friday’s morning-long session. “Informed by this reality, we understand people of color require intentional services, resources and opportunities for wealth building.”
The data, shared by Dr. Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, showed the pervasive nature of the racial wealth gap. The average Black and Latino households in the U.S. earn about half as much as the average white household and possess only about 15% to 20% as much net wealth, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. The gap has only increased over time as median wealth has increased exponentially for white families and stayed relatively stagnant for families of color.
“These are race-based problems that require race-based solutions,” said Jefferson-Jenkins, a Chatham resident, former president of the League of Women Voters and former director of the Hunt Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We cannot separate them as Black families continue to fall behind.”
Jefferson-Jenkins challenged listeners to think about what the county, state and country might look like if that racial wealth gap were eliminated. Statistically, it would mean a 4- to 6-point increase in national Gross Domestic Product and $1.6 trillion more dollars in the economy. But beyond the data, Jefferson-Jenkins said the elimination of that gap would lead to the liberation of entrepreneurs and lead to more opportunities for people to feel included in their communities.
Chatham’s population has grown exponentially in the past three decades, and it’s projected to continue expanding. The county’s growth rate of 95.7% from 1990-2020 far outpaces the state average of 57.1% over that same span. Despite the nearly doubled population over that span, the Black population in the county is shrinking. In 1990 Black residents accounted for 23% of Chatham’s population, but in 2022 they made up just 12%.
The growth of the county also isn’t adequately reflected in the number of minority-owned businesses, which make up just 12% of Chatham firms. Further, those minority-owned firms only account for 4% of total sales revenues generated in the county.
Black-owned businesses are especially underrepresented in Chatham’s business scene, making up just 7.3% of all businesses in the county, meaning they are underrepresented by 41%, according to the Chatham County Minority Entrepreneur and Small Business Needs Assessment.
“Chatham County is a magnet for demographic and economic growth,” Jefferson-Jenkins said. “Opposition to further growth are barriers to entrepreneurship and small business development, especially for minority entrepreneurs.”
She stated that to achieve equitable growth, local officials must address the racial divide that exists within Chatham County. Part of the divide, she said, occurs from historic segregation, which leads to institutional distrust. And when potential entrepreneurs of color hold distrust, it makes them less likely to pursue financial opportunities in their communities.
While the data shared by Jefferson-Jenkins illustrated the struggles of the reality for Black and Brown entrepreneurs, there is plenty of reason for optimism, too.
At a national scale, Black-owned businesses are getting started faster than ever. According to a story in The Washington Post, in 2021, Black-owned businesses were started at the fastest rate in 26 years. The growth was largely possible because many Black entrepreneurs across the country used federal stimulus funds to start businesses, with healthcare ranking as the top sector for those business owners.
The rise of minority-owned businesses from federal stimulus checks is evidence that intentional investment in communities works as a tangible solution, according to Axios. Jefferson-Jenkins advocated for similar intentional investment in Chatham’s future businesses. She said those investments could come directly from major future industrial players like VinFast and Wolfspeed.
The desire to see the racial wealth gap shrink in Chatham is also a goal of local government officials.
Last June, Chatham County Commissioners heard a presentation from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC that focused on the needs of minority-owned businesses and recommended a place-based approach to solving the inequities of the county. The following month, the project was approved for further research.
The research advocates for the county to develop an inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial and small business ecosystem. This can be achieved, the report says, by creating on-ramps for entrepreneurs of color, increasing business profitability, and reducing the racial wealth gap.
Much of that research informed Jefferson-Jenkins’ presentation.
“These initiatives are not writing historic wrongs,” she said. “They are about choosing a more dynamic future and realizing the full potential of a massively underutilized source of talent to benefit all North Carolinians.”
Further aiding the existing issues is the work of WEBB Squared, which guides Black and Brown entrepreneurs through programs and mentorship.
“Our interventions are designed to liberate consciousness and efficacy in our target populations and in the larger business stakeholder community,” Terry said. “We believe that Black and Brown entrepreneurs are the change agents that can help evolve and transform our rural economies. Our programs support translating their brilliance into profitable, sustainable business ventures.”
The model of those programs is intentional and leads to measurable success, Terry said. WEBB Squared focuses on social media marketing, coaching, preparing for capital acquisitions and more. They also tailor their approach to each entrepreneur to make it as useful as possible.
Friday’s presentation concluded with a call to action: to keep having conversations about the racial wealth gap and finding potential solutions to see it to a speedier end.
After Jefferson-Jenkins’s presentation, a panel discussion with several WEBB Squared entrepreneurs and Chatham officials discussed the future of the county and how to assist minority owned businesses through future growth challenges. The panel, moderated by former Chatham County Schools Superintendent and ex-County Commissioner Dr. Robert Logan, included Karen Howard, chairperson of the Chatham Board of Commissioners; Michael Smith and Chreatha Alston, president and board vice chairperson (respectively) of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation; Shauna Noel-Robinson, chef and owner of Tasting Queens Market; Vibrance Doncella, owner of Good Vibrations Sound Therapy; and Shannon Reeves, a Chatham real estate agent.
For more information about WEBB Squared visit www.webbsquared.org.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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