As The Pandemic Grinds On, Some Black-Owned Businesses In Kansas City Are Finding Ways To Grow
Despite the economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and decades of discriminatory disadvantage, Black businesses owners in Kansas City are staying resilient.
LaTasha Crawford isn't a doctor or scientist, but she is in the business of killing viruses.
Crawford is the owner of Miscellaneous Staffing Services, which does janitorial and staffing work throughout the metro.
"It is a pandemic, and so I think there is a huge demand to sanitize, to decontaminate areas," she said. "Here we are available, you know, to provide people that's going to help go in there and kill that virus."
Crawford started the company with her husband in 2017, and said, despite a few months when they had to close at the beginning of the pandemic, business more recently has been consistent.
That could be considered a blessing in 2021, especially among Black business owners. A study published in May by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research shows they were disproportionately hit by the pandemic early-on. While the number of active business owners across the U.S. dropped 22% from February to April, Black business owners experienced a 41% drop.
Before the coronavirus spread across the country, Crawford had 10-12 employees. Now she has enough work for 21, but her list of clients has decreased and finding new clients has become harder. Her business is also vulnerable to more business shutdowns — if the government calls for them in the coming months.
"We kind of rely on the fact that other businesses are open, and if they're open then we can go in there and decontaminate and sanitize and things of that nature," she said. "But if not they're open, then we can't do any of that."
Like a lot of Black businesses owners, Crawford and her husband had to be creative financially because startup funding was scarce. They worked long hours, saved up, and relied on other contractors who were generous enough to loan and rent them equipment at discount rates.
The first business loans or grants they qualified for came in 2020, in the form of Economic Injury Disaster Loans and the Paycheck Protection Program the Small Business Administration implemented to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.
"It was really the government funding, and the relief of COVID-19, that really helped us out as a minority-owned business," she said.
Crawford was careful to mention, though, that her background in bookkeeping gave her a leg-up in qualifying for that relief, and that other Black business owners she knows didn't apply in the first place because they didn't think they'd qualify.
"They're asking for balance sheets and income statements and things of that nature that a lot of (business-owners) aren't educated in," she said. "If it's hard for me — and I'm very organized — I know that for a lot of other startup companies, it's extremely hard."
A well-oiled machine
Fahteema Parrish's company also qualified for federal COVID-19 relief funds.
She said navigating the application process involved a ton of paperwork, but Parrish & Sons Construction was fortunate enough to have a payroll system in place ahead of time. They also have a six-year history of excavation, demolition, and grading work, including at Kansas City's new airport terminal project.
And in December Parrish celebrated her first year running a fully-banked company, rare among Black-owned businesses.
A report based on the Federal Reserve's 2019 Small Business Credit Survey found fewer than one in four Black-owned businesses had a recent borrowing relationship with a bank.
Aside from a few minor delays in the spring and summer, Parrish said business is going extremely well. A large part of that is because of the nature of the work.
"Our highways and our infrastructure projects still need to be improved or enhanced," she said.
In fact, fewer cars on the road during the pandemic has made things more ideal for doing construction and demolition work, and for protecting her employees, who mostly work in isolated or outdoor environments.
Parrish attributes a lot of her company's resilience to the community of mentors and business partners she built around herself, including other constructions firms, workers' unions, and her accountant and banker.
"It's just really exciting just to see it come to fruition and put these things in place," she said, "putting the meat on the bones of this skeleton that it started out as."
A huge chunk of her startup funds came from her personal savings (Parrish spent 20 years working in IT). In the early days, Parrish and her husband worked grueling hours without pay. Now, though, she has a standalone business to pass down to her kids.
"They understand that it's not just Mom and Pop and an excavator or a truck," she said. "The business is no longer just at the ground level, but it is ... a well-oiled machine."
Planting new roots
Nika Cotton and her kids, who are homeschooled, have been spending long hours at Soulcentricity, her tea shop at 30th Street and Troost Avenue.
Cotton is a single mom, and opened the store in July, three months after businesses across Kansas City closed down because of coronavirus precautions. Her startup cash came from her savings, friends who invested and an online crowdfunding effort.
"I was working all the hours, all the days of the week at the shop, which I feel like was really an advantage in the long run," she said, because it kept overhead low and gave her more flexibility to respond to the pandemic.
"It's not been an advantage in the short run, because it is exhausting," she said.
But Cotton was just awarded a $25,000 grant from G.I.F.T., a nonprofit that invests in Black-owned businesses in low-income parts of Kansas City. With the money she hired a shop manager, who started this week, and G.I.F.T. is also providing an accountant and business coach.
"I feel like this weight is just lifted off of my brain," she said.
It wasn't the first time she'd applied for a business grant, but it seemed to come at just the right moment.
"I'm definitely going to make it through this year of my lease," she said. "And I'm actually going to be able to grow the business enough, I hope, to sign a five-year lease at the end of this year. And then hopefully people will have their vaccines and the market will be in recovery at that point, and I will really have this thing that I can build wealth for my family off of."
There are a lot of puzzle pieces left to fall in place but increasing foot traffic in her neighborhood, a new ability to deliver product to customers, and the cash infusion have her feeling hopeful.
"Black businesses are very resilient. You know, historically ... we've always started and operated at a disadvantage, particularly Black women," she said. "And so we've always had to figure out creative and innovative ways to make it — and we have done that."