“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” is one of the biggest hits from Detroit native Aretha Franklin. And now her sisters – Black women entrepreneurs – in the Motor City want it as well. It’s no easy task starting a business, and it becomes even more difficult when you have to face hesitation from investors and even customers because you are a Black woman. Five black female business owners told a panel at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Detroit on Wednesday (Aug. 1) that winning respect can be so difficult that they sometimes bring along a White colleague to important meetings with investors or others just to make things go easier, reports the Detroit Free Press.
“When we come with a white man, the conversation is totally different,” April Anderson, owner of Good Cakes and Bakes in Detroit, told the NABJ audience. Their panel, “The Future of Business in Detroit Is Black and Female,” was sponsored by Quicken Loans and moderated by James Chapman, Quicken’s director of entrepreneurship. Roslyn Karamoko, owner of the Detroit Is the New Black apparel brand, echoed Anderson’s comment. She brings along a small equity partner who is white when meeting potential investors, who seem more comfortable talking with the white man than the actual owner.
“When it comes to scalability and all those things, it really requires a white man at the table,” she said. And, the business owners said, many outsiders don’t seem to understand the level of education and savvy that some of these entrepreneurs possess. “I worked in New York, as a global buyer in Singapore, all around the world, so I come to this with some level of experience,” Karamoko told the audience of her apparel brand. “But when I walk into a room, (it’s) ‘Here’s this little Black girl and her T-shirt brand.’ For Black women, that really is the heavy lifting of scaling the business.” Kelli Coleman, co-owner of TEN Nail Bar in Detroit, voiced the same complaint. “Ultimately I feel like we’re having to work that much harder just to get the right look, the right consideration,” she said. “That’s what we face most often, is not being taken seriously as a result of us being Black females.”
It probably doesn’t help that some of the businesses owned by Black female entrepreneurs in Detroit — bake shops, hair and nail salons, apparel shops — often seem frivolous to many outsiders, compared to high technology or manufacturing firms. But many of the industries these women work in — food, apparel and personal grooming — are multibillion-dollar industries that produce as many or more jobs than those other sectors. “I’ve been disrespected so many times as a Black woman, especially here in Detroit,” said Jennifer Lyle, owner of Lush Yummies Pie Co. in Detroit. “It’s weird because Detroit seems like it’s all about validation and ‘We support you!’ But do you really support us?” Sometimes the lack of respect comes from other people of color, who often ask for discounted prices on products from a Black female owner even if they wouldn’t ask the same of a white owner. The entrepreneurs on the panel advised owners to stand firm in the face of those requests. “We have to believe in our contribution and value and not waver,” Karamoko said.