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Delaware Black entrepreneurs find support, confront challenges

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Lanice Wilson The Juice Joint The Chancery Market Wilmington Delaware Black entrepreneur

Lanice Wilson has managed the ups-and-downs of entrepreneurship at her business, The Juice Joint, in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

WILMINGTON – When Lanice Wilson left corporate America in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she, like many, was looking for a change.

The marketing veteran and certified project management professional had worked for AstraZeneca, AAA and the Association of National Advertisers, but was looking to start something of her own.

An interest in juicing developed with her daughter blossomed into an idea that, over several months of planning, became The Juice Joint in Wilmington’s Riverfront.

“I love the idea of food also being medicine. I also know that I couldn’t eat five to seven servings of fruit and vegetables a day, but I could drink it,” she said.

Wilson opened the store that squeezed and diced fresh vegetables and fruits into delicious cocktails in July 2020, just weeks after Delaware reopened stores and offices following the pandemic’s outbreak. Despite fanfare from local leaders and great enthusiasm from Wilson and her small staff, it faced a new economic reality: her key clientele of office workers were no longer reporting into the city each day.

Last month, Wilson made the difficult decision to close her shop.

“I think I had a week where I couldn’t get out of bed. Because outside of business, there’s an emotional attachment to it. I put my heart and soul into the business; my family put their heart and soul in too, so it was a loss and I needed to grieve,” she recalled.

On Feb. 10 though, Wilson attended a roundtable discussion with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons along other Black entrepreneurs, seeking to bolster her new venture: The Juice Joint 2.0

A growing trend

Black entrepreneurs like Wilson are growing in number nationwide, and in Delaware, especially in the post-COVID era.

In fact, after a significant decline at the outset of the pandemic, Black-owned businesses grew by 38% between February 2020 and August 2021, according to UC Santa Cruz researcher Robert Fairlie, even while white and Asian businesses fell by 3% and 2%, respectively. The Kauffman Foundation also found that more Black Americans started businesses in 2020 than in any of the previous 25 years.

Merchant Maverick, a comparison site that reviews small business software and services, recently surveyed all states on their Black-owned employers, their payroll, and other state employment data to rank the best states to grow a business as a Black entrepreneur. Delaware was ranked No. 5.

In a 2022 SCORE data report, Black business owners reported a 23% uptick in annual revenue growth – twice as fast as overall U.S. employer-businesses. Black-owned small businesses also added employees at double the rate of all other U.S. businesses. Despite these gains, Black entrepreneurs struggle to find funding, citing difficulty securing loans or a lack of trusted banking relationships – emphasizing the need for partners.

SBA Director Michelle Harris

Michelle Harris, the Delaware District director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, has stepped up efforts o supply resources to local minority entrepreneurs. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Partners link resources

As entrepreneurship grows in minority communities, new and established resources are reaching out to assist in their journey.

The SBA and its partner SCORE, which offers business plan consulting, have stepped up efforts in Delaware after the pandemic, particularly through the federal Community Navigator program that funds trained resource professionals to walk candidates through federal programs that could assist them. The SBA’s Community Advantage program also offers microloans to less-established minority businesses through specialty lenders, like Wilmington’s True Access Capital.

“Delaware’s blessed to have some great resources in terms of supporting small businesses, but having small businesses thrive and grow is a real challenge,” Sen. Coons said, urging entrepreneurs to reach out to the SBA.

Meanwhile, the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce has also become a leading source of support since being founded just two years ago. Today, it has 575 members statewide.

“A lot of these businesses still don’t know a lot in terms of what’s out there … I think there’s always going to be a need, where we can help bridge that gap,” said Ayanna Khan, the founder and president of the Black chamber. “These small businesses truly need it because they’re innovative, resilient, creative – they just need a little extra support.”

Khan said what really excites her is how so many entrepreneurs are entering growing fields like tech that have promising futures.

Black entrepreneurs Donte Murphy, Ashlee Cooper, Lanice Wilson, Nataki Oliver

Black entrepreneurs Donte Murphy, of 6Ninety9 Web Design; Ashlee Cooper, of Droneversity; Lanice Wilson, of The Juice Joint 2.0; and Nataki Oliver, of The Sold Firm, shared their experiences with federal leaders in February. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Growth industries

Among those entrepreneurs is Ashlee Cooper, founder and CEO of Droneversity, which trains people to earn a federal aviation license for drones.

It was a unique career twist for Cooper, a trained molecular microbiologist who started an event planning business in her spare time.

“I did like a big art balloon design at an event and I was standing up on a chair to take a picture of it when someone said it would be much safer to get that picture if I had a drone,” she recalled.

The moment of serendipity led her to get her drone license and begin flying contract jobs – in her first, she earned upward of $150 an hour inspecting cellular towers. Seeing the financial opportunity available in the burgeoning industry, she started introducing the training to teens and college students, which led to the creation of Droneversity.

In two years, the program has trained dozens of new federally licensed drone pilots. Cooper has also helped launch a new Drone Soccer team for kids with local partners and is co-authoring a children’s book about drones to help normalize the technology with future generations. She hopes it can help open their eyes to new opportunities.

“Out of 300,000 drone pilots nationwide, less than 7% are women and only 3.5% are Black women,” she said. “I’m proud to represent a different side of what aviation can look like, because aviation has always been predominantly white male.”

Like Cooper, Donté Murphy is growing his business 6Ninety9 Web Design amid booming interest. The marketing professional opened the company’s first office in Baltimore in July 2020 and followed with a Wilmington office just a few months later.

“It was perfect timing with the bubble of everyone wanting to be an entrepreneur and a lot of businesses that were getting by as brick-and-mortar suddenly had to get their sales online,” he said.

With 6Ninety9 aimed specifically at small and medium-sized businesses that are often overlooked by bigger web design firms, Murphy’s firm was tapped by the SBA to work on a grant-supported program that would help about a dozen such Delaware businesses get online.

“It was a great way to get us visibility and make great connections, which has allowed us to be successful,” he said.

Murphy said he aims to continue growing 6Ninety9 and has plans to hire a graduate of Zip Code Wilmington’s coding bootcamp this spring to give the three-person firm some additional capabilities.

Black entrepreneurs SBA Chris Coons

Black entrepreneurs talk with U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and other federal leaders on Feb. 10 about what they need to help grow their businesses in Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Traditional ventures

Wilson, of The Juice Joint, said she learned some valuable lessons in her first failed venture, including having lease terms reviewed by a third-party to help give an entrepreneur insight into whether a location would make a viable business. She also learned to make decisions faster.

“I think because I was emotionally attached to the business, I stayed in longer than I should have,” Wilson said.

Seeking to put those lessons into action, she opened The Juice Joint 2.0, a smaller stall version of the business in The Chancery Market, a new food hall in the north Market Street corridor, last month.

Not too far away, Nataki Oliver is aiming to strengthen The Sold Firm, her contemporary art gallery on Tatnall Street in Wilmington.

Oliver, who is a marketing executive at Bank of America in her day job, said she never felt comfortable taking out a loan to support her business.

“I hear my friends and other business owners struggling and I want to make sure that my business is safe for the long haul,” she said.

That has meant a significant amount of personal sacrifice and investment though, as Oliver has self-funded the operation of the gallery to date. She’s also focused on hosting paint nights at the gallery and curating exhibits for other venues like the Delaware Contemporary Art Museum and the Route 9 Library for half of her year, she said.

“A lot of outside projects have allowed me to sustain whereas before selling art was much easier,” she said.

Like Oliver, Wilson said she too didn’t want to take on loans to grow her business, but grants also haven’t materialized. She has unsuccessfully applied for the state’s Encouraging Development, Growth & Expansion (EDGE) grant three times.

“It was a very competitive market this year, but that’s a lot of work and energy that goes into preparing for those things and then I’m still operating my business,” she said, noting that she was looking to consult the SBA for help in preparing future grant applications to lessen the burden.

Challenges vary by business

For The Sold Firm’s Oliver, the biggest challenge ahead is her location, which lies just three blocks from the popular Market Street area but lacks the foot traffic and visibility of the revitalized commercial corridor. The entrepreneur said that she really likes her current location, but growing the business may require a move.

“I had a vendor that I met through a summertime art market who wouldn’t come a few blocks over to my galley, and that was surprising to me,” she said.

She has explored other spaces on Market Street or 9th Street, but rents are rapidly rising in those areas too, making it difficult for an entrepreneur to survive without a steady cash flow. The prospect of new housing in the area may also convince her to stick out the current location and try to help change the narrative of her block.

Cooper of Droneversity said she hoped state officials would be quicker to embrace drone technology in its work and open regulatory possibilities for the field. Other states have developed “sandboxes” where improvements on the technology could be researched and tested in real-time, and it’s leading more of her graduates out-of-state for jobs and opportunities.

Murphy of 6Ninety9 said his biggest challenge was continuing client attraction, which has largely come through word of mouth so far. He hopes to grow awareness of his business and the services they provide to small companies looking for a local provider.

Like all entrepreneurs, each day is still challenging, Wilson said.

“It’s still not easy and it probably won’t be, but you just keep pushing,” she said. “Failure is not an alternative.”

Oliver agreed, adding that entrepreneurism is not something you can shake easily.

“It definitely keeps me going because I just see what the bigger picture is, and I’m just trying to get there,” she said.

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