Female Entrepreneurs: The Rise of the Girl Boss

Female Entrepreneurs: The Rise of the Girl Boss

Women’s History Month may be over but there’s one thing we can’t deny. Women all over the world, specifically minority women, are taking the world by storm in more ways than one.

Though we still face challenges, such as equal pay for equal work, it hasn’t hindered us from dominating in politics, education, sciences, law enforcement, and even entrepreneurship.

Over the past several decades, women have broken glass ceilings, taken their rightful place in seats of power, gained independence, and continue to make incredible contributions to all sectors of this nation and the world, particularly in business and entrepreneurship.

In fact, there are more women starting businesses now than ever before. According to the American Express State of Women-owned Business Report, the number of women-owned businesses has increased 74 percent, 1 ½ times the national average of only 51 percent, since 1997.

This growth has been seen in nearly every sector of the economy, including health care and social assistance, social and educational services, professional and technical services, administrative support, retail and more. These studies also show the fastest growth in women-owned businesses is among women of color, specifically African Americans.

To some, these statistics are simply numbers on a page. But to others, these numbers translate into real-life experiences, where individual women can see their stories among the data.

The Life of an Entrepreneur

Kela Hall

Kela Hall (Photo Credit: LinkedIn)

Kakela Hall is no stranger to hard work but is new to the entrepreneur life.

“I always knew I had the spirit of a trendsetter and I always colored outside the lines [for] as long as I can remember,” Hall says. “However, in 2012, I became certain I had to own my own business and do good work in the community that would help people.”

As CEO and Co-founder of K.D.Hall Communications and the K.D.Hall Foundation, Kela has made the transition from the corporate sector to running her own business with her husband and business partner David E Hall. However, it was Kela’s past working experiences and early collegiate projects that were pivotal in the development of her drive to be a trendsetter and ultimately go into business for herself.

“Our non–profit is a piggyback off of my women’s organization in college that was about empowerment, laws to support women in the workforce and fair wages,” she says.

Building an Empire

Girl SmilingThere are various factors that have contributed in the rise of women–owned businesses in general, but also specifically within the African American community. One important factor to note is education.

Since 1999, African American women have earned over 60 percent of all degrees awarded to African American students. It is no mistake that as more degrees are being earned, more businesses are being created.

With 5 years under her belt, Erica has moved into the expansion phase of her self-owned business.

“I’m building my mini empire,” she says. “I am venturing into web design for small businesses. I am [also] marrying my talent as a photographer and graphic design. I now create simple mobile-friendly websites for small businesses that have no web presence. I manage their websites so they can manage their business.”

While most women-owned firms remain small in terms of employment, it should be pointed out that the number of women-owned employer firms (which now numbers over one million) has increased by 13% between 2002 and 2012, while overall the number of U.S. employer firms has declined by 1.8% over the same period.”

So who really runs the world? In the world of entrepreneurs, it would seem that African American women specifically, but women in general, are the leading forces these days. The influences of women in business will only continue to expand as the data has shown.

Beyond the month of March, all year long, we honor Icons such as Michele Obama, Melinda Gates, Loretta Lynch, and the millions of local business women that are transforming our economy.

Have you ever thought about starting your own business? Share your thoughts below.

Diversity in Silicon Valley

Diversity in Silicon Valley

While most of the controversy surrounding the kerfuffle between Michael Arrington and Soledad O’Brien has died down, the issues remain salient. And the recent airing of CNN’s latest “Black In America” documentary, focused on Black Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, might bring it back up.

So quick, let’s get in some meaningful conversation before it heats up again into another Internet flame war.

I’m speaking, of course, about the maelstrom stirred up by a promotional clip released in advance, a controversy covered by UrbanFaith’s own Christine A. Scheller. In the clip, Michael Arrington, former head of TechCrunch, admits to host Soledad O’Brien that he doesn’t know any Black tech entrepreneurs. Later, Arrington and his supporters decried this as a setup and accused O’Brien of “gotcha” journalism. Meanwhile, Black folks across the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, many of whom have been lamenting the dearth of diversity in Silicon Valley for years, see this as just another example of a White dude who doesn’t get it.

I’m generalizing, of course. Many people have weighed in with a variety of perspectives. But most of the responses seem to fall on a continuum of responses in favor of either O’Brien or Arrington, as if one’s credibility as a member of either the African American community or the creative tech community depends on attacking one and defending the other.

And most of us, especially those with backgrounds in creative technology who identify as Black, know that’s not true. We know that it’s not about taking sides. And we don’t like to throw around the R-word. We just want to see people understand the underlying issues. We’re on the side of people who get it.

Round One to O’Brien

Which is why, if I had to pick a side, I’m starting off with Soledad O’Brien, and not just because she was gracious enough to give UrbanFaith an interview. The facts are the facts. Michael Arrington DID say that he didn’t know any Black entrepreneurs, he said it on-camera, and as far as we know he wasn’t under the influence of any mind-altering nano-robots. Arrington’s protests of an ambush were quickly rebutted by O’Brien herself on her CNN blog.

So round one went to O’Brien, for sure.

But before we use Arrington’s ill-timed words to judge Silicon Valley for its sins, we also have to remember who’s doing the talking. Michael Arrington has always been something of a loose cannon. There’s a reason why he’s no longer at TechCrunch. Michael Arrington can no more speak for all of Silicon Valley than Metta World Peace can speak for the whole NBA. His viewpoint is just that, his viewpoint.

And in defense of his viewpoint, I will say that there are several things that he said right. When he said that he doesn’t think of people that way (meaning as members of racial groups), he was being very candid and forthright. And when he speaks of the tech ecosystem of entrepreneurs, coders, marketers and venture capitalists as being a meritocracy, where what matters most is the strength of your ideas and the amount of innovation you bring into your particular field, there is a lot of truth to that. The consumer tech market is certainly a meritocracy, because consumers don’t care what a product’s creator looks like, as long as it meets their needs and fits their price range.

In the same way, as African American entrepreneur Stephan Adams tells O’Brien in the video clip below, investors will quickly forget about race if you present them with an idea that they believe will make them a lot of money.

In this sense, Michael Arrington was mostly right — and so was Herman Cain. Racism isn’t always the thing that holds people back.

Bias in the Making

But as Hank Williams pointed out in his tech blog, Arrington and others in his position miss critical nuances with that argument. The market itself may be a meritocracy, but the market makers — the venture capitalists, the hiring managers, the relational gatekeepers, the journalists and their editors — all the people who help shape the public perception of who is or isn’t an innovator, of who’s hot and who’s not, of who’s on the cutting edge and who’s lagging behind, and most importantly, whose ideas are worth investing in and whose aren’t … these roles are filled by human beings with specific cultural biases.

These biases, while not being actively racist, artificially reduce the field of qualified applicants into narrow profiles that match certain patterns, patterns that are more culturally palatable to the people already in charge, a vast majority of whom are young adult White males.

(This is why, for example, there were hardly any Black people in The Social Network, despite it being primarily set in an Ivy League institution like Harvard, where diversity is supposed to be a core value.)

So the questions remain … how can these truths be communicated in meaningful ways? What will it take for the status quo to change? In what ways is it already changing? And how can people of faith respond?

I’ll attempt to address these questions in my next column, but in the meantime I welcome any critiques or observations that you might have regarding this issue or the CNN special. Please chime in below, and then stay tuned for Part 2.

Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright

Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright

GHOST TOWN: The abandoned ruins of Detroit's once-bustling Packard Auto Plant.

Over the last month in Detroit, the blighted Motor City has recaptured a bit of its civic pride with the success of two of its pro sports franchises. The winning ways of the Tigers (who went deep into the American League baseball playoffs) and the Lions (who started the NFL season 5-0) are exhilarating.

Sports teams can serve as symbols of hope for big cities, and at least for a moment their accomplishments helped take the focus off of Detroit’s primary narrative these days — its anguished economy and decaying manufacturing sector.

The excitement over homeruns and touchdowns is a welcome distraction, but the ubiquitous ruins of what used to be a vital and bustling industrial hub is still a more accurate measure of the city’s current fortunes.

Take, for example, the sprawling remains of the Packard auto plant. It can be seen spilling over East Grand Boulevard — east of Mt. Elliot and south of I-94 — its missing windows like a large gaping grin. On any given day, the Packard Plant is host to filmmakers, urban explorers, and photographers alike, trying to capture the beauty in decay. Unfortunately, it’s also a backdrop for car theft, prostitution, and dogfighting. Today, the abandoned plant showcases crumbling staircases and discarded property. But it wasn’t always this way.

The now lifeless automobile factory was once the pinnacle of extravagance, producing luxury cars for wealthy purchasers, both in the United States and abroad. The Packard Motor Car Company opened its doors in Detroit in 1903, the same year that Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. The company pioneered a number of design innovations, including the modern steering wheel and, years later, the first production 12-cylinder engine. At the height of its success, the plant provided more than 40,000 workers with employment.

But in 1956, only one year after auto production in Detroit soared to an all-time high, the Packard Plant halted production. When compared to other larger automobile companies, including the Big Three, this plant was pulling in less than 1 percent of the market share during the 1950s. Unable to compete with a slew of foreign and domestic rivals, many companies merged, disbanded, or changed location to be closer to the competition. Automation soon swept through assembly lines, replacing employees in these plants. By the 1958 recession, 20 percent of Detroit’s workforce was unemployed.

“Detroit’s economic decline began much earlier than most people think that it did,” said Daniel Clark, an associate professor of history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. “There were many contributing factors — decentralization of the auto industry, increased automation in the factories leading to fewer available jobs, even rules surrounding federal government housing loans. In actuality, the decline began right after World War II.”

Clark stressed the impact that racism and segregation played in Detroit’s economic decline. Exclusionary zoning practices reinforced economic and racial tensions in the city, and hindered many non-white Americans from moving into the suburbs. Additionally, bank redlining established standards for evaluating risks of mortgage loans. According to the standards of the Federal Homeowners Loan Corporation, black, integrated, and radically changing neighborhoods were defined as credit risks and therefore prevented occupants from obtaining federal government housing loans. Consequently, many nonwhite Americans in Detroit at this time struggled to build a life for themselves outside of poverty.

The story of Detroit’s economy is a complicated one; a story laden with corruption and racism, greed and even some technological advances that set the city back rather than propelling it forward. It’s a story of a city that failed to diversify its business portfolio, leaning too heavily on one industry.

But there’s also a secondary narrative of optimism and hope emanating from a grassroots movement of entrepreneurs. These tenacious women and men, many of them inspired by their religious faith, have refused to give up on the city.

DETROIT INNOVATOR: Margarita Barry is the founder of 71 Pop, a social entrepreneurship venture that helps creative entrepreneurs obtain their own retail spaces. Photo by Karpov The Wrecked Train (Kenny Corbin).

Young Detroiters Leading the Way

The culture of entrepreneurship in Detroit is a multifaceted and diverse. From clothing designers and fledging venture capitalists to foodies and shop owners, the Motor City is abounding with people who are striving to create their own sense of the American Dream. They’re the Grassroots Entrepreneurs — people who are organizing their businesses on the community level rather than flocking to a single industry. They’re not afraid to work from the ground up — to hang up posters, hand out business cards, and employ fundraising campaigns (like Kickstarter) to get their company going. They’re the networkers. The social media mavens. The people voted most likely to quit their day jobs.

One such example is Margarita Barry. She embarked on her first venture at the age of 18, launching a multicultural web-based and print magazine for women called Tint. Ever since then, she’s been hard at work. As a seasoned Detroit entrepreneur, Barry grasps the importance of working to create something that will positively influence the region, while also potentially generating a profit.

At the end of July, Barry opened Detroit’s first-ever collaborative pop-up retail store, 71 POP. From the beginning, Barry wanted to use this outlet to supply new designers with an affordable and hassle-free retail space to sell their products. Many of these creatives would not have otherwise had the opportunity to sell their products, had it not been for Barry’s latest undertaking.

She’s also the founder of I AM YOUNG DETROIT. More of a movement than a blog, this website offers news, profile pieces, and video media about Detroiters under the age of 40 who are shaking things up in the Motor City. It’s served as a mouthpiece and a platform for Detroit’s younger generation.

Like Barry, Ben and Dan Newman are part of Detroit’s next generation of entrepreneurs. Both brothers graduated from the University of Michigan, Ben with a master’s degree in urban planning and Dan with his bachelor’s in business. Opening a bakery was never on their agenda.

But all that changed last November when they made their first batch of bagels. “Bagels are like pizza. Everyone has an opinion on them,” said Ben. “Up until this point, no one has really experimented with bagels. We want to make bagels that you can’t get anywhere else.”

So, that’s what they set about to do. Currently, they’re baking out of their Corktown flat and selling bagels every Tuesday at the Eastern Market through their business, the Detroit Institute of Bagels. On average, they pack up about 200 bagels to bring to the market, selling out within two to three hours. Their offerings run from the traditional to the unique, from plain and poppy seed to more experimental flavors like cherry chocolate and, most recently, blueberry lime. Soon, they hope to be moving into a permanent establishment.

“It may be a small thing to offer Detroit a bagel shop, but we’re providing conveniences that weren’t available before,” said Dan. “It’s the unique spots that are going to drive visitors and residents to stay in the city.”

BAKERS' VISION: Ben Newman (left) and Dan Newman are the brothers behind the Detroit Institute of Bagels.

Similar to Barry’s vision, Ben and Dan Newman hope to use Detroit Institute of Bagels to positively influence the Detroit region. As their business grows, they plan to offer residents jobs in the company and use it as a platform for teaching and training business practices so that employees will have the skill sets needed to start their own ventures some day.

“When you open your own business, you expect the hurdles, but realize its part of getting to the goal,” said Ben. “Here in Detroit, we’re building on the businesses that are already established. The community support is unbelievable.”

TechTown, Detroit’s research and technology business park, is one such support for those looking to start their own businesses. They describe themselves as “a community of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, service providers and corporate partners,” and actively work to provide resources to fledging businesspeople and administrators through programs such as SmartStart (their business accelerator program) and NextEnergy (an alternative energy incubator). As the most prominent business incubator in the Detroit area, TechTown hopes to be one of the main driving forces of stimulating economic growth in Detroit and Michigan as a whole.

Churches in the Mix

The churches of Detroit are rising up as well to help stimulate economic growth in their community and devise ways to care for the neighborhoods around them. Rev. Kevin Turman of Second Baptist Church of Detroit spoke recently of how they’ve made a conscious decision to “adopt” the Lafayette corridor to the east of the downtown area as their geographic area of mission.

COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Detroit's Second Baptist Church, led by Rev. Kevin Turman, seeks to make vital connections with both the residents and businesses of its downtown neighborhood.

“We’re working on connecting the resources of the surrounding business community with the needs of the residents,” Pastor Turman said. “There’s been some hesitance on both sides of the equation… but we intend to [have even more community involvement] and to do better.”

Second Baptist Church of Detroit has championed for the city for more than 150 years. Prior to the Civil War, the church served as a station of the Underground Railroad, providing about 5,000 slaves with clothing, food and shelter before passing them onward to freedom in Canada. They also established Detroit’s first school for African American children; one of its members — Fanny Richards — went on to become the first African American career public school teacher in Detroit.

Second Baptist Church is located in the heart of downtown Detroit. They’re four blocks away from the landmark Renaissance Center and only five blocks away from the Detroit River. The congregation is comprised of a mixture of professional and labor workers, many who have been members for 50 years or more.

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it,” said Pastor Turman. “We are looking at our worship services, ministries, and outreach efforts to ensure that we will remain a vibrant part of Detroit’s present and future rather than a beautiful relic of its past.”

Coming Back (Like the Lions)

But the question still remains: Can post-industrial cities like Detroit pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Maybe not completely. No city can replace an entire economic infrastructure and replace tens of thousands of jobs on its own. But you have to start somewhere.

“Cities can start [repairing] roads, the water system, schools — all things that are essential to communities. It may also just be that all Americans have to learn to live with less and buy locally,” said Clark. “Detroit needs to do these things in order to strengthen its economy.”

From the era of Henry Ford and the Model T until today, Detroit has possessed a legacy of tenacity and creativity. By continuing to provide a business climate that is conducive to startups, Detroit can stimulate its business community, while providing resources to the neighborhoods within it.

At the risk of wearing out the sports analogies, perhaps the journey of the Detroit Lions can serve as inspiration. In 2008 the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16 in one season, and then a year later they could only manage a 2-14 record. Now, just two years later, they’ve gone from being the worst to one of the best teams in the league.

Now is a time in Detroit’s history for big dreams and small steps. And sometimes, all it takes is just one step to begin bringing about transformation. As the Peruvian proverb says, “Little by little, one walks far.”