Kris Christian, a small-business owner in Chicago, was mourning the death of George Floyd when she was hit with an onslaught of online orders that caught her off guard.
The owner of Chicago French Press was home reeling after watching cellphone footage of the white police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck when her iPhone lit up with notifications from new orders.
“I was crying when I kept hearing these Shopify ‘ching chings’ going off,” said Christian, who started the online coffee shop in 2016. “It was like new order after new order.” It was a bittersweet moment, she added.
People are showering Black-owned businesses with support in the wake of protests against police brutality. The sudden attention on inequality in America has spun numerous online lists spotlighting Black-owned companies for people to support.
But the Black entrepreneurs who run the businesses say they have mixed feelings about the renewed interest in buying Black. They say the renaissance is well overdue, but it’s unfortunate that the movement was birthed by tragedy.
“On one hand, this is what we’ve been praying for. This is the support we’ve wanted for so long,” Christian said. “But it comes after such horrible and disgraceful acts. It comes after all these Black men and women have been killed by cops.”
Almost as soon as protests kicked off in late May, online sales surged 225% over what was considered average, she said.
It started with a list
It turned out that her Chicago-based coffee brand was included on several blog posts, Google Docs and spreadsheets making rounds on Facebook and Twitter in a loosely connected effort to uplift the community.
One such list was created by Destinee Stark of Plain Township, Ohio, and includes more than 250 Black-owned establishments in the state.
Duan Gavel, a developer in Springfield, Mo., created another one even before Google spreadsheets or graphics started circulating on social media urging people to support Black entrepreneurs.
Lois Hines, founder of the hair care company Tropic Isle Living, also saw a surge in business after the firm was included on a list. Orders for the products ramped up in late May, and the Jamaica-sourced castor oil brand flew off the shelves at Target and Walmart.
“At first we couldn’t understand it,” Hines said. “We were like, wait a minute. Is this people shedding light on black-owned businesses?”
As awareness spread, so did other tools making it easier to find Black-owned businesses around the country.
Yelp introduced a search attribute for shops to identify as Black-owned. And the customer review company added a list of places to choose from. A Yelp representative said searches for Black-owned businesses on the platform increased 35-fold amid protests against police brutality.
UberEats also kicked off an initiative to support Black-owned businesses. The delivery company began waiving delivery fees for restaurant orders placed at Black-owned restaurants in the United States and Canada.
The movement may mark a cultural shift. For a long time, many Black entrepreneurs were wary of having their businesses labeled “Black-owned” out of fear that it would limit their customer base.
“When I started my business, I had advisers say, ‘You shouldn’t put your face in front of your brand because that might turn off certain people from buying your coffee,’“ Christian said. “Now, I’m glad I didn’t listen, because when people start searching for Black-owned businesses on Google, they find us.”
Black-owned banks are busy, too
Minority-owned businesses have long had a harder time getting financing, which might also be spurring interest in Black-owned banks amid race-related protests.
OneUnited, with five total branches in California, Florida and Massachusetts, received 40,000 new accounts over the past month.
The first boost came from the pandemic with more people shifting to mobile banking, said Kevin Cohee, CEO of OneUnited. A second wave came from people thinking about how spending can influence the race-related changes they want to see in America, he added.
“The awareness around racism caused people to rethink where they’re doing business and how they participating in the social well-being of their community,” Cohee said. “The death of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery focused people’s attention on using their financial resources as a way to better their community.”
OneUnited is one of about two dozen Black-owned banks and credit unions in the United States, according to the financial advocacy group Blackout Coalition. South Carolina is served by OneUnited, as well as C.O. Federal Credit Union, headquartered on Spring Street in Charleston, and Brookland Federal Credit Union on Sunset Boulevard in West Columbia.
Optus Bank, a minority-owned community bank headquartered on Columbia's Main Street, has seen a significant uptick in business dating back to federal pandemic relief and likely amplified by increased awareness of racial issues, president and CEO Dominik Mjartan said. He said the bank, which had about 450 loans in its porfolio before the pandemic struck, has since processed 600 as customers become more intentional about where their money goes.
"I do think that the awareness of our bank and the relevance that we have for our community certainly has increased," Mjartan said. "The murder of George Floyd really has highlighted the importance of mission-aligned or mission-driven institutions and businesses that truly live their values."
Mjartan said he and his staff are working seven days a week to keep up with the increased demand, driven in part by Optus' policy of not requiring minimum loan amounts.
"We’ve seen an influx of interest from both people that have ample choices with banking services, that are well-banked, but that have been mobilized to reach out to us," Mjartan said. "We’ve also seen an influx of customers that may not have been aware that there was an alternative for them. … We took everyone, regardless, and we took everyone on a first-come, first-served basis. We didn’t prioritize. We didn’t try to pick off the best customers first. We tried to serve everyone equally."
Many banks run by Black people are in locales that are underserved by other banks. The minority institutions provide access to safe and affordable bank accounts, mortgages and business loans, which are often hard for Black entrepreneurs to secure, Cohee said.
From 2007 to 2017, more than half of companies with Black owners got turned down for loans, a rate twice as high as white business owners, according to the Federal Reserve’s most recent data.
Despite issues with financing, the share of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. has risen over the past decade. There are now 2.6 million, up from 1.9 million in 2007, according to the Department of Commerce. And those businesses might be on track to get another boost, with movements surrounding Juneteenth encouraging people to spend intently.
My Black Receipt, for example, is urging consumers to spend $5 million at Black-owned businesses from June 19 through July 4. The idea is to quantify how much financial impact consumers and allies make by having people upload receipts.
“We want people to buy Black every day,” said Kezia Williams, lead organizer for My Black Receipt. But “this window allows us to see that impact in real time.”
Still, Black business owners say it’s hard to gauge how to scale their companies with the influx of revenue because no one knows whether or how long the shifts in buying habits will last.
“I’m afraid to scale too much because you never know if this is going to be a week-long thing or is it going to be a one-day type of thing,” Christian said. “But it’s my hope that we keep this energy up so that we can create more opportunities, more jobs and more resources for our own communities.”
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.
The Columbia Regional Business Report contributed to this article.