This entrepreneur helps build a foundation for Kansas City's Black business owners
Much of Christopher Vernon Stewart's flooring and home restoration work happens in properties that haven't been renovated since the 1970s. His goal is to "provide modern living at an affordable price for our community.”
Growing up in South Kansas City’s Marlborough neighborhood, Christopher Vernon Stewart spent summers watching his grandfather build business after business to support his family.
“He was a big part of my life coming up. So he instilled a lot of principles and discipline, like integrity and work ethic,” Stewart says. “He was a butcher, he did lawn care and hauling. My grandmother owned a catering business. It was subconsciously embedded in me seeing them take chances and encouraging me to do the same.”
That entrepreneurial spirit eventually led Stewart, a graduate of Raytown South High School, to start his own business. Stewart is the sole owner and operator of Stew’s Harwood LLC and co-owner KCS Culture, a real estate investment and home rehabilitation company looking to bring affordable housing back to communities east of Troost Ave., the metro’s historic racial dividing line.
Much of his work happens in the same neighborhood where he grew up in south Kansas City.
“Rent for a two-bedroom home is now $1,300 a month. ” he said. “That is steep for properties that have been left mostly unrenovated since the 1970s. We do not want to be the slumlords of the past. Our goal is to provide modern living at an affordable price for our community. It does not have to be extravagant. Just up-to-date instead of living in squalor.”
June 19, 2022, marked the nation's second, and Kansas City’s tenth anniversary of recognizing Juneteenth — a holiday that denotes the abolishment of slavery in America.
Once little known, it has become an opportunity to celebrate Black culture in America.
For Stewart, the business he started building back in 2011 is reason enough to celebrate.
“Juneteenth is a day that gives Black folks the opportunity to feel proud. It is akin to Independence Day,” he said. “So, it feels pretty good just being able to maintain success as a Black business owner.”
Starting a business is risky for anyone. But for Stewart, a single father and a Black man trying to do business in a historically under-invested part of Kansas City, the challenges before him were great.
“It was rough the first couple of years and I went through some serious financial hardships,” he said. “The hardest part about starting a business is building the clientele. But I stayed focused making the quality of my work the highest priority, which built my reputation. Now, 98% of my business are referrals.”
Since 2011, he’s refinished more than 1,000 floors and completely remodeled five or six homes.
“Everybody defines success differently, but I feel like I have been pretty successful since taking a chance opening a business 11 years ago,” he said. “My family is proud of me. I know my grandfather was. So that's success right there to me.”
A family history in entrepreneurship
A third generation descendant of Jamaican immigrants, Stewart has a love for community and a dedication to Black ownership that was instilled in childhood.
In addition to watching his grandfather build businesses, he watched as his father, uncles and other relatives all opened local small businesses such as Stewart Town Coffee and SE3 Engineering Kansas City.
Another uncle, Charles Byrd, once owned Byrd Construction LLC, which helped build Kansas City Public Schools’ Richardson Early Learning Center.
“Subconsciously, it was embedded in me. Just seeing them do things and take chances while encouraging me to do the same,” Stewart said. “There are some long days. But I work for myself and I make my own schedule. That is the highest form of freedom in the Black community.”
That tenacity is also an inspiration to other Black business owners in the metro.
“I know for a fact that Chris does work to the quality that probably surprises people that it's Black-owned,” said Charles Browne, owner of the film company Chuck Browne Productions.
“He basically sets himself apart from the rest of the pack,” Browne said. “In the Kansas City community, Chris is a role model. A good positive representative for the youth to copy. In fact, he inspired me to start my company and I will be forever grateful for that.”
Outside of Stewart’s business, he’s had an impact by mentoring Black youth.
He coached and sponsored youth sports for the South Suburban Junior Athletic Association from 2008-2015 and his daughter Aniyah’s YMCA basketball team from 2015-2019.
One of his former players, Jerome Jackson — Stewart affectionately dubbed him “JJ” — earned a basketball scholarship to Central Community College in Grand Island, Nebraska.
“He coached me in football and basketball from sixth through eighth grade,” Jackson said. “I never really had a father figure and Chris was that. Whenever I needed to ride to practice or anything, he was there. He even gave me my first job. He is a positive influence on my life that showed me hard work and has been a mentor.”
Stewart said leaving an improved legacy for his family to build upon like his forefathers did, and continue to do, is of utmost importance to him.
“I want to be a good leader and be a positive example for both my daughter and my family. Instilling good traits will help them make good choices,” he said. “I want to leave her something and being a business owner is how I show her that.”
In that way, Stewart said, he celebrates Juneteenth by recognizing the progress of Kansas City's Black culture and building the economic foundation for that community to keep growing.
Lawrence Brooks is an intern for KCUR 89.3.