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Charlotte’s Leading Black Woman Entrepreneurs are Leaving the City

Coming into 2019, it would appear that Charlotte was a top spot in the country for black business leaders to thrive.

The 14,000 black-owned businesses in Charlotte reported in recent U.S. Census data meant the city’s growth rate in that area was at 35%. A recent Forbes report ranked Charlotte No. 6 in the country for “African-American prosperity” based on median household income, home ownership rate, population growth and the percentage of people who are self-employed.

In 2018, the city hosted the 23rd annual Black Entrepreneurs Summit, touted as the most successful one ever by its leaders. The summit will return to Charlotte on June 19, rebranded as FWD (pronounced “Forward”), with a new focus on tech-driven businesses.

With all this progress on paper, why is it so hard for many entrepreneurial black women to feel at home in our city?

In January 2018, local black-owned tech incubator BLKTECH Interactive opened a 1,200-square-foot office space in Camp North End to much fanfare. Mayor Vi Lyles was on hand to help celebrate the occasion, and national publications picked up the story, praising the work BLKTECH founder Sherrell Dorsey had done since launching in 2016.

However, about a year later, BLKTECH CLT was forced to shut down its physical space and cut back on its work in the field due to lack of capital support. Now, after Dorsey has been hailed by city officials, local business leaders and national press as an example of what’s possible for Charlotte’s future, her own future in our city is unclear.

Sherrell Dorsey outside of the recently closed BLK TECH CLT space at Camp North End. (Photo by Josh Galloway)

I recently spoke with Dorsey about her experience and why she believes her company wasn’t able to thrive in Charlotte despite its momentum and measurable results.

Dorsey’s goal with BLKTECH Interactive was to create a space for young black professionals who were excited about tech and wanted to pursue that interest. Members had the opportunity to expand their portfolio and connect with like-minded individuals in the industry.

In 2016, BLKTECH launched in the Hygge coworking space.

“The intention was to create a community and serve a need while building an exciting environment for black leaders,” Dorsey said.

There was an outpouring of interest among their targeted group and beyond. Over the last three years, BLKTECH placed more than 24 high school students in tech programs, hosted events that reached more than 2,100 area residents and created job opportunities for numerous people of color in the tech space.

Their influence within the community was irrefutable. One Charlotte native told Queen City Nerve that because of BLKTECH, her brother obtained a mentorship that put him on the right path to job security.

“We brought attention to Charlotte in a way that specifically invested in inclusion,” Dorsey says. “People in the community needed an on-ramp to jobs in tech. We provided a means for a middle-class demographic of people to feel excited about tech.”

With the outpouring of community support, continuous upward mobility would appear to have been the next step on the ladder for BLKTECH. However, as Dorsey explains, the steps were more like chains and the ladder was nothing more than a modern-day minstrel show.

“We were asked to tap dance for survival,” Dorsey wrote in a Twitter thread in May, explaining her reasons for closing down the space and reconfiguring the operational strategy. “They would give $5,000 for something that required a six-figure budget. They didn’t see our company as an investment.”

During an interview with WFAE in February, Derek Dingle, editor-in-chief at Black Enterprise magazine, pointed out the difficulty for black entrepreneurs in raising capital. He stated that 95% of black-owned businesses in America are sole proprietorship, and many of those are funded by friends, family members or crowdsourcing campaigns.

According to Dingle, black-owned startups are three times less likely to be approved for a business loan than white-owned startups.

“The individuals making the decisions are older white men,” Dorsey explains. “Their networks are limited. They’ve never been entrepreneurs and they’re tone-deaf to the challenges and needs of entrepreneurs.”

Sherrell Dorsey speaks at the 2018 NorthStar conference. (Photo courtesy of Sherrell Dorsey)

Dorsey believes the lack of representation at higher levels trickled down through the city, which in turn prevented BLKTECH from reaching its full potential.

It became clear during discussions with potential investors that none of them knew the value of her business — if they understood the mission at all. Most people immediately assumed that BLKTECH was a nonprofit organization that targeted “inner-city, low-income” residents. Not once did a heavy hitter with venture capital assume that BLCKTECH Interactive was a for-profit organization.

Dorsey’s experience points to underlying issues of subconscious prejudice. Caucasian men with money were assuming that, because BLKTECH Interactive is owned and operated by a woman of color and served people of color, it must be geared toward the low-income sector.

“Assuming that we are a nonprofit is racist. Women are considered the mule of the world. We have to beg for sustainability,” Dorsey said. “The nonprofit/industrial sector is saturated in Charlotte. Everything is about charity and the at-risk demographic, which the media uses to strip people of their humanity. They don’t look at black or brown people as investments.”

To test this theory, I ventured over to a popular news site and searched, “Top Black Businesses in Charlotte.” The results were interesting.

Before even finding an article with valuable content, I came across countless ones referring to homicides. Words like poverty, low-income and gentrification dominated the themes pertaining to the African-American voice in Charlotte. I found one report that shed a positive light on black businesses in Charlotte.

The experience stuck with me. I began to look at words differently — words that I had grown numb to. I questioned everything. Why are the only black-owned businesses in the city limited to the restaurant or beauty industries?

When was the last time you saw a black-run law firm, a black doctor’s office or a black-owned investment company portrayed in the news?

“Charlotte loves poverty stories. They love to push gentrification or sad stories in the news and media outlets. Nobody has seen black people in any other context other than a repressed story,” Dorsey said. “That narrative doesn’t push us to solve problems. People celebrate mediocrity. We want to give ourselves a handclap for doing basic things. When people aren’t challenged, you’ll continue to stay the same.”

Unfortunately, the inherent bias Dorsey experienced in Charlotte wasn’t limited just to her. It’s also prevented plenty of Charlotte-based businesses from gaining the recognition they deserve.

Colorstock, a stock photo portfolio that focused on inclusivity and diversity, was launched by Charlotte entrepreneur Jenifer Daniels in 2015. The company didn’t survive for many of the same reasons that it was needed in the first place.

“I was building a business that highlighted the lack of diversity in a city that didn’t even realize we were on the cusp of an uprising,” Dorsey says.

Jenifer Daniels did not feel she could make a business succeed in Charlotte. (Photo by Shea Parikh)

After years of triumphs and trials, Daniels had to close the business in March 2018.

“Frankly, I don’t even think people realized that Colorstock was Charlotte-based and born because I simply did not feel comfortable sharing my vision with the movers and shakers of the city,” Daniels recalled. “I could not envision this city making the same investment in me as I was willing to make in it. That’s when I knew I needed to return home.”

Slightly jaded but inspired by her experience in Charlotte, she moved back home to Detroit, a city often portrayed in the media as moving in the opposite direction as Charlotte.

In Detroit, Daniels felt more welcome to include herself. Out of the 61,868 businesses in Detroit, 50,946 are minority-owned.

So what are other cities doing that Charlotte isn’t?

“Other cities across America have fellowship programs and investment dollars specifically tied to human capital,” Daniels said. “I never even heard the term ‘human capital’ mentioned in any conversation that I had in Charlotte when I lived there for nine years.

In addition to losing business owners, Charlotte is also struggling to keep political voices in. Lula Dualeh was 3rd Vice Chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party in 2016. Her work to build up Charlotte’s west side and bring social issues to the forefront gained state-wide recognition.

Unfortunately, an experience similar to the aforementioned entrepreneurs led her to relocate to New York City, where opportunities were more plentiful.

Lula Dualeh (Photo courtesy of Lula Dualeh)

“As a new and young entrepreneur, there are unique hardships that I think are often overlooked,“ Dualeh said. “It’s almost as if we have to prove ourselves twice as hard, which is impossible without any support. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been encouraged to start my own business, even from many influential people in the city. However, that advice was never met with any resources.”

As with Daniels, Dualeh could no longer personally invest in a city that she didn’t feel was investing in her.

“For years, I would turn down opportunity after opportunity because I didn’t want to leave Charlotte. Charlotte’s my home,” Dualeh explained. “I spent most of my adult life pouring my everything into this city but I started to feel as if this city wasn’t pouring back into me.”

And so, just like that, she was gone.

“I decided to relocate because I wanted a real chance as a millennial woman to have financial stability to start my life. That wasn’t going to happen in Charlotte.”

In 2017, Dualeh left to pursue endeavors in the marketing audience development sector.

While access to capital would surely help businesses succeed, support from prominent figures would also boost the success rate amongst minority leaders, Dualeh said.

“If black entrepreneurs saw a more concerted effort among elected officials and philanthropists working together to influence and create policies to support us, which in return will help the city tenfold, I believe that would be a great start to make us more inclined to stay.” she said.

Daniels also feels that a stronger political influence would prompt leaders to stay in the Queen City.

“[Charlotte] does not highlight underrepresented talent,” Daniels expressed. “It does not represent them on 40-Under-40 lists and even squelches their voices when they hold public office.”

Since 2017, Mayor Lyles has worked to strengthen the voice of the underrepresented community. In a recent interview with Essence magazine, she explained her mission to make Charlotte a great place for everybody to live and work. This hopeful attitude is quite evident even amongst the challenges.

“I feel so hopeful for Charlotte,” Dorsey said. “There is an opportunity for black women to get prominent visibility in major roles. [Those in power] need to listen to the needs of what black women need. It’s an ongoing battle but I know we’ll get there.”

But before we are to get there, Daniels explained, the city will have to come to terms with why it can’t keep black woman entrepreneurs within its city limits.

“Charlotte needs to have a come-to-Jesus moment. The first step is Charlotte admitting that it has a problem.”

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