Young, gifted and in business
African Americans lead the nation in biz start-ups and failures, but more interest and training bodes well for the future
Young African Americans are into business, and they have been for a number of years.
A 1999 Gallup study found that seven out of 10 high school students want to start their own companies while eight out of 10 African American students want to be their own boss.
“Research proves that the generation starting businesses fastest are those 18 to 24 years old, and that holds true for any group . . . and the ethnic group that is starting businesses fastest of all is African Americans,” explained Johnetta Boseman Hardy, executive director of the Howard University Institute for Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Innovation (ELI Institute).
The Eli Institute is funded in part by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and creates an environment that supports entrepreneurial activities and initiatives that will help create jobs and fuel economic growth in minority communities.
What is driving this interest in entrepreneurship is exposure to people who are doing it already, said Eldridge Allen, associate director at the ELI Institute. “ . . those who step into entrepreneurship are starting out early and not just in high school. We’re talking junior high and elementary school. The seed is being fostered in kids eight, nine, and 10 years old. They want to work for themselves. They are seeing more and more examples of people doing their own thing. They take that into their minds and hearts, and they have that little flame; that spark early.”
Allen in part credits the proliferation of rappers, sports, and other entertainment figures who have come out with their own lines of clothing, shoes etc. And at Howard, Sean “Puffy” Combs, a former student at the Washington, D.C. university, is a major motivational factor.
Combine that with the fact that Hardy and the ELI Institute have taken the approach of infiltrating the entire campus—all 12 of its various academic schools—with an entrepreneurial education, and it’s understandable why business ownership is becoming such a big deal there.
In Los Angeles, 12-year-old Mia Brumfield is a living, breathing example of how the push for entrepreneurship is not just limited to places like Howard University.
The Audubon Middle School student recently returned from a trip to New York with her mother, Martrice, courtesy of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). She was selected as the NFTE 2008 Global Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Southern California, and as part of the awards process she was flown to the Big Apple.
Brumfield won for a business plan she put together for a company called Oh My Jewelry, and while in New York, she was able to sell $71 worth of bracelet and earring sets.
“I took the NFTE course in the sixth grade at Audubon, but now I’m a seventh grader. My teacher for the NFTE course told me she needed somebody to enter the contest and said she thought I should do it. I said why not, because anybody (would) jump at the chance to go to New York,” explained Brumfield about her initial motivation. “I had to do it really fast, so I was up three days in a row at night to get it done. I was the second person to get my application in, and I think that gave me a boost.”
The budding fashion designer was selected a winner and flown to New York where she was given half a table to sell her wares. Initially Brumfield, who learned to make jewelry from her grandmother, Meriam Ginyard, had not intended to use her $500 prize to continue her business, but was going to save it for college. But the profits she raked in convinced the Los Angeles entrepreneur that business must come first.
Now she sells her creations to friends and is in the process of setting up a web site.
“Why I want to be an entrepreneur may sound weird, but I don’t like listening to people. I like to have control over what I do. I’m very independent. In business, you do what you want to do. In your business you can be as unique as you want. A lot of people have said this is crazy, but I just tell them an idea may be crazy to one person but to another person, it’s worth a million dollars.”
Like Brumfield, who has been inspired by her father’s private chiropractic practice and her mother’s non-profit organization, many of the young people he sees going into business today are siblings or children of people in business, said Harold Hambrick of the Los Angeles Black Business Expo.
“What we are doing, is each year during the Expo, we have a relationship with the Los Angeles Unified School District, where (students) are tutored and taught about operating their own business. We bring 500 or 600 eleventh and twelfth graders to the Expo on Friday, and they participate in morning workshops. . . in the afternoon, they get a chance to tour the Expo and have a chance to talk with entrepreneurs about various types of businesses. We try to expose the students to all types of businesses.”
In addition, Hambrick said the Expo each year sets aside about 10 exhibit spaces for young entrepreneurs, most of which are donated to them free of charge. Typically they have five to 10 young people sign up to participate.
Although no formal studies have been made about young African American entrepreneurs, Allen of the ELI Institute said the companies they are operating run the gamut from traditional bricks and mortar to more high-tech endeavors.
“A lot of them are involved in marketing, graphic arts, and music production. Financial services is real big on our campus,” added the ELI associate director. “We had one guy who won our business plant competition, who does professional development services. When students need business cards printed up, resumes, or promotional items for events, he handles that.”
Danyele Davis, a spokesperson for the Miller Brewing Company Urban Entrepreneurs Series Business Plan Competition, said over the eight years that the contest has been in place, she has seen the competition attract business plans for companies including magazine, fiction publishing houses, and greeting cards. But in the last several years more technology proposals have been included in the approximately 350 business plan submissions the competition received.
“The program has always been open to everything from an idea to companies that have been operating less than two years. But this year most of the business plans were for companies up and running. And that’s exciting, because it shows they are so hungry that they are not dependent on the contest for seed funding. They’re putting little bits and pieces of funding together,” Davis pointed out.
In addition, the Miller spokesperson said that this year an astounding approximately 70 percent of the business plans were actually ready to be judged.
The way the contest works is that people ages 21 to 35 submit their business plan in one of seven regions—California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Michigan. The top three entries are identified by regional judges, and those applicants are given feedback on what improvements need to be made, then the revised packet is sent on to the national judges.
In 2007, the competition awarded a total of $150,000 in 12 different categories with the first-place winner receiving $35,000.
Indiana transplant Arian Doaks was one of the 12 winners in 2007. The fashion designer-runway model-fashion merchandiser won $1,500, which helped her with her online retail store www.tallheaven.com.
“I started my business on eBay two years ago, and it went really well,” explained Doaks. But there was one problem. “People wanted to buy cheaper (on eBay). I had to almost low-ball (prices) the entire time, and I was not making a lot of profit. What it ended up being was more of an advertisement. . . everybody was looking for a deal.”
But what Doaks needed to do was be in a situation where people understood the need to pay extra for the specialty merchandise she was searching out and selling.
TallHeaven.com is a store that sells clothing for tall women, and the idea for the store was born of Doaks’ own frustration over trying to find clothes that fit her slender “all-legs” frame.
“I always had problems finding clothes. I’m 5 foot 10 inches tall, all legs and arms. Ever since middle school, I was the tallest in my class and the tallest of all the boys. My mother was a single mother, and she didn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes. . . in middle school I flooded in all my clothes. All my pants were too short--high waters. All my shirts were three-quarter-length sleeves. They were supposed to be long sleeves, but they were too short. The bodices did not curve where they were supposed to curve. It was always the same issue,” recalled Doaks. “My mother tried to talk me into (believing) that flooding pants were in. She said call them cropped pants.”
Once she got older and began to work, Doaks began going to specialty stores, but at 16 years old, flowers and the mature styles she encountered were just not for her.
“I was horrified. . . I said to myself, I just don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t they come up with clothes for taller women, and why can’t they have just a little bit of style?” remembers the 24-year-old business owner.
Taking the matter into her own hands, she began to alter her too-short clothing, turning jeans into skirts and adding fabric to the bottoms of pants.
“That’s when I decided to have my own company,” added the model, who came up with the name because she thought a store with stylish clothes that fit her would definitely be heaven.
But before launching her dream, Doaks attended Ball State University where she majored in fashion merchandising, fashion apparel design, and minored in marketing and management. A three-month internship at the Pico Rivera-based clothing company Baby Phat led to an unexpected opportunity to stay in California and launch her business.
“I was fresh out of college, and I didn’t have enough money to live out here and use all this money to try to start a business. This family (that I was living with), that didn’t know me, allowed me to stay in their house for one-and-a-half years, and they encouraged me to get my business off the ground.”
Accepting the unexpected gift, Doaks got her business license, seller’s permit, and began looking for specialty clothing stores in the Los Angeles garment district that had clothes for tall women.
Another chance encounter led to the creation of a distinctive web site, www.tallheaven.com, which launched a year ago. Today the site gets 800 to 900 hits a month from all over the world.
The web site features clothing Doaks purchases from manufacturers, a few of her own designs, and the opportunity for people to purchase custom-created, special occasion wear.
The Miller business plan competition win enabled Doaks to take care of some essentials for the new direction her business was going. These included supplies and another larger sewing machine.
Doaks’ decision to go into business was definitely a case of seeing a need and filling it, but her choice of what to do was a very personal one. “It’s an issue I have personally experienced, and I directly benefit from the business. Back in Indiana, a lady who was a client of my mothers, had the opportunity to visit with a WNBA team at a women’s workshop, and she thought about me. She asked, ‘Where do you buy your clothes from?’ and they said, ‘That’s a good question.’ They said they wear men’s jeans.”
That answer confirmed for Doaks the need for her business, and strengthened her resolve that www.tallheaven.com was something she had to do.
The approach she intends to take with her company—to sell online—is also in keeping with the way that her contemporaries see the world as a place where using technology is second nature.
Howard’s Hardy said young people like Doaks and Brumfield are the generations that are going to help the African American community secure its next level of rights—economic rights.
“We have to understand and assume responsibility for ourselves and claim our economic rights. (To do that) we need to have tools; and the tools have always been there, but we’ve been denied access. We’ve always been seen as a product of the country and not a participant.”
Entrepreneurship changes that, asserted Hardy. But in order to fully gain these economic rights via entrepreneurship, everybody must be on the same page, said the business education expert. And that means Historically Black Colleges and Universities around the nation must ramp up their entrepreneurship studies, and African Americans must do battle with the challenges that have traditionally felled black businesses—access to capital, and “not knowing what they don’t know.”
And the fallout caused by these two giant obstacles is definitely reflected in the current business statistics, pointed out Hardy. She noted while young African Americans have the highest rate of business start-ups, black businesses in general also have the highest mortality rate. The “why” can be directly attributed to the two major challenges these firms face.