In Connecticut, one in three small businesses has permanently closed since last April — even some neighborhood staples that were around for decades could not stay afloat. But the crippling effects of the pandemic have been even more devastating to Black-owned businesses.
The virus and its lockdowns wiped out 41% of Black businesses across the country last year. Those who’ve survived this far are still struggling to return to pre-COVID numbers.
“When the pandemic first hit, I was affected in a way that I didn’t know how I would be able to support my family or to keep my doors open,” said Leslie Gomez, the CEO and lead photographer of LMG Photography in Hartford.
Studies have shown that COVID-19 has had a disproportionately profound impact on communities of color. A 2020 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Black-owned businesses were almost twice as likely to close as businesses with white owners.
Coupled with gaps in federal financial aid and disparities in vaccine distribution, the hurdles can feel endless. But Connecticut’s Black-owned small businesses, particularly those that are women-owned, are doing their best to overcome the challenges.
“We had to work every avenue in order to be as successful as we are right now rather than having that financial security,” said Adelina Parkes, who co-owns Bee’s Artistry in Hartford. “We had to make that security ourselves.”
Bee’s Artistry didn’t qualify for financial aid like the Paycheck Protection Program in 2020, as it hadn’t been an LLC for a year. Parkes and her partner, Alex, had wanted to buy a space for the baking side of their business, but without monetary assistance, they instead moved fast to get a license to be home-based. Their guest room is now an office that they meticulously clean every four to six hours.
“We had to go through a lot more steps because we didn’t get that financial help to go ahead and have an actual spot,” Parkes said.
Gaps in federal relief are an unfortunate trend among Black-owned small businesses. Loans like the PPP have reached only 20% of eligible Black-owned businesses, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York study.
On top of that, “weaker cash positions, weaker bank relationships, and preexisting funding gaps,” driven by systemic obstacles, left Black businesses financially disadvantaged at the onset of COVID-19, the study said. Falling short of one or two qualifications can lead to losing out on critical aid.
“A lot of the businesses don’t have all of those requirements yet. A lot of us have started up, but we didn’t start up with everything intact,” Hartford’s Glossy Diva Cosmetics and Supplies CEO and Artistic Director Sharla Weaver said.
Weaver’s business is depending largely on clients who’ve invested in it. She’s constantly looking for different sources of income, like collaborating with other businesses, and when the next wave of applications for financial aid opens, she said she’s set on meeting all of the qualifications.
“A lot of us, especially those of us in the [Hispanic] and Black community, we just did what we thought was best to get us started,” Weaver said. Though she’s “thriving” now, Weaver knows that’s not the case for everyone, adding that she wishes Connecticut would educate small businesses more on its programs, especially those aimed at communities of color.
Connecticut has help for women- and other minority-run small businesses, but some Black owners feel like these resources are not always written to be accessible to everyone.
“I think that some of the language that they do put out there is for people of different demographics that know more than us small-owned, Black-owned businesses,” Gomez of LMG Photography said. “It’s a lot of hidden information.”
Even the word “paycheck” in the PPP loan, Gomez explained, initially deterred her from applying, as she’s a single-member LLC without a staff on payroll. It wasn’t until she educated herself on the program that she realized she qualified for money she really needed: she’s “just making it,” having lost her clients and revenue to event cancellations.
“There is help out here [for small business in general], but we just don’t know exactly where all the time to look for it,” Gomez said, reiterating that Connecticut should have more education for small businesses.
Tashima Hodges of Queen Jewels in Hartford also said she has a hard time getting loans because she works selling jewelry by herself. She tried applying for the PPP loan, but said the amount she qualified for was “pennies.” She, too, wants more education on Connecticut’s opportunities for Black-owned small businesses.
“They don’t make it known that they have these programs available for us. I would like them to at least advertise more that they’re willing to help us,” Hodges said. “Our advantages are lower to go out there and get a loan. It’s harder for us. They don’t think we’re stable or capable of running a successful business.”
Natasha Harris, the owner of Nabii Organics in Hartford, said that navigating the PPP process was difficult at a time when businesses needed financial support quickly.
Before the pandemic, Nabii Organics saw up to 70% of its revenue come from in-person events. Now it’s transitioned entirely online and is faring well, which is impressive, as Harris makes skincare products alone from her basement while juggling being a Ph.D. candidate.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Harris said.
In addition to receiving a number of grants, Harris said that what’s really benefited her business is partnering with others — small businesses are working together to promote products and even do giveaways.
“I think the small business community within Connecticut, even if there’s competition, has been such a huge resource,” Harris said.
Outside of the owner bubble, community support for small businesses, Black-owned and otherwise, has been incredibly important. At Bee’s Artistry, Parkes said it’s been “phenomenal,” and promotion like Shop Black CT, which features more than 1,300 Black-owned businesses in the state, has helped with publicize the shop locally.
Additionally, 2020 was a monumental year of calls for civil rights and justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement brought with it a push to shop at Black-owned businesses.
Stella’s African Eatery on Capitol Avenue in Hartford lost its main clientele of state employees when offices closed. Owner Stella Jagne said getting loans has not worked in her favor, though she received the PPP loan with the help of International Hartford. Online orders and the BLM bump gave much-needed boosts as well.
“We were that small Black-owned business that was close to the Capitol and we had a lot of marches and people were stopping here to eat,” Jagne said.
However, as #BLM began disappearing from people’s social media feeds, so did the customer base. Still, Jagne and Connecticut’s other Black-owned businesses are carrying on, and they’re determined to stay.
“Since the summer ended, we’ve been on the decline,” Jagne said. “But we’re hanging on. We’re trying.”