Around Town

For black business owners in Charlotte, where does race fit in?

Thinking back to a year ago, when I leaped into business ownership by opening a bridal party boutique in Uptown, I was so naive.

I was naive about how difficult it would be to secure accounts with dress designers I admire. I was naive to the fact that it would take an endless amount of follow-up calls for commercial real estate brokers to call me back (and actually show up to scheduled site visits at retail properties). And I was naive to the fact that there would be months of no sales, no calls and no money.

However, one thing I was never naive about was the reality that many of these challenges could be because of my race.

Yet, one year later, my shop is not only open, it’s thriving. I attribute this to my faith and the belief that God placed specific people in my life — both white and black — who have played an important role in the opening of my store.

Where does race fit in?

Just as I did a year ago, I refuse to devote any energy worrying about the assumptions that potential customers may have about my business because it is black-owned. I truly believe what is meant to be will be — if my race is a distraction from my service and product, then that sale was not meant for me.

This perspective has kept me motivated during the rough months and humble during the great ones. I am a 25-year-old black woman with a brick-and-mortar store in an industry dominated by 40-something-year-old white women. To me, this city is full of opportunity, and for that I am so grateful.

However, my story is just one among the roughly 21,500 black-owned businesses that make up Charlotte’s economic landscape. And while I wear the badge of “black-owned” with honor, this is not the reality for all black Americans.

In what we would like to believe is a post-racial society, many black business owners are still fighting the perception that “black people can only do black stuff” and the connotation that black-owned means “for blacks only.”

So to fight that misconception, some business owners go to great lengths to hide their identities as black founders, in hopes to increase sales and revenue.

[Related: 31 black-owned shops, restaurants and studios 20 minutes from Uptown]

Finding support for black businesses

Cultural and social activist, entrepreneur and consultant Jasmine Hines is all too familiar with this narrative.

For years, Hines worked as a consultant in the construction industry, ensuring that large-scale construction projects had at least 10% participation from minority-owned businesses. Often she struggled to get these businesses to bid on major city projects because whenever minority companies were presented, there was an intense amount of concern about the quality of work or the ability to handle projects of that scale.

“But we all know quality is subjective,” Hines said.

Courtesy of Jasmine HInes

Hines, who worked for two years as a program designer and facilitator for the Community Building Initiative under 40 program and a facilitator for the Nuevolution exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South, is aware that “quality of work” is code for “organizational fit.”

“White people are a good organizational fit because of their race,” Hines said. “This city operates in a bubble — people reach out to do business with who they know and who they like. And many times, there are no minorities in those circles.”

During her 18-year tenure in the Queen City, Hines has witnessed firsthand the surge and decline of black-owned business.

“When I first moved to Charlotte, there were a lot of black people starting businesses, creating events and spaces for black people to gather. But there was a demise of the that environment because of the lack of support for black businesses.”

Although Hines remains a bit skeptical about the survival of black-owned businesses in Charlotte, she has noticed an uptick of young black entrepreneurs in the city.

So, am I right to believe that our community is a welcoming and inclusive environment for black businesses?

“What keeps me going is having a community of folks that I can disrupt spaces with, create a new normal,” Hines said. “My vision is that eventually, hopefully, there will not be a space for my type of work.”

Forging ahead as black business owners

Should black business owners proudly remain the face of their companies and disregard the impact prejudice may have on their bottom lines?

Kerrel and Nkemdi Thompson, founders of In Our Nature, believe the answer is yes.

Courtesy of Kerrel and Nkemdi Thompson

In Our Nature is a natural dye studio and flower shop, which the Thompsons opened just months after they moved their young family from Chicago to Charlotte. They moved in search of a community — not a new business venture.

“Community brought us here — we wanted a connection to people. We followed Elevation Church for years before we moved here,” Kerrel said.

Once they settled into the Queen City, the creatives quickly noticed the newness of Charlotte’s business landscape and its evolving culture.

“Being a creative or an artist in Charlotte, it’s a special time because you can have such an impact on the city’s growth,” Nkemdi said. “There is no market that’s overly saturated.”

With that in mind, the entrepreneurial duo got to work expanding their brand and renovating their second-floor storefront on Providence Road.

At the forefront of their business is sustainability. Their T-shirts are made from 100 percent recycled cotton, and they are designing garments meant to outlast fast fashion trends.

“A lot of inspiration comes from the way that we fit together,” Nkemdi said. “There is no way I would be doing any of this if he wasn’t here.”

Because the Thompsons are so deeply rooted in the community and have strong emotional connections to their business, hiding their identity as black business owners is not an option.

“Our intention has always been to serve as an identity for people in spaces where they’re less represented,” Kerrel said in a recent Instagram post.

And while they set out to inspire the black community, they want to be clear that their products, services and art are for everyone.

“We are very aware that we are a black family living in Myers Park with business in Myers Park, and for some [people] that maybe a new concept,” Nkemdi said. “But as people of color, there’s a lot of room left in this world for us to occupy.”

Courtesy of Kerrel and Nkemdi Thompson

The Thompsons are committed to creating the inclusion they want to see in our community, while remaining true to their brand.

“We make decisions that honor our family, and we’ve seen the impact that it’s had on people who enter our space,” Nkemdi said.

Since opening their doors, In Our Nature has had a very diverse mix of consumers. “And that’s been really dope,” Kerrel said.

“In the end, we have to trust that what feels good to us feels good to other people,” Nkemdi said.