By Sherri Kolade and Rasha Almulaiki
This four-part series celebrates Detroit’s entrepreneurs, movers and shakers during Black Business Month in August. From honoring the path paved by local forerunners to reflecting on why we shop Black — part three unveils Black women who not only help hold up the sky, but also Detroit in a major way.
They are an institution. Their own movement plus a whole vibe on top.
Black women are natural powerhouses in the workforce, intentionally lifting others up as they rise, and while it is no easy feat, it’s a necessary one that is actively being built upon by change agents and leaders in their field who, too, stand on the shoulders of their own giants from earlier generations.
“I have to be a voice. I have to pull up others because others pull me up,” multi-hyphenated Detroit-based poet, musician, muralist and rockstar extraordinaire Jessica Care Moore told the Michigan Chronicle recently.
According to the American Express 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, “Women-owned businesses in Michigan and metro Detroit are leading in growth and economic clout.” Crain’s Detroit Business cited this report, finding the rate of women-led entrepreneurship more than doubled from 2012 to 2019.
The report notes, “While the number of women-owned businesses grew nationally by 21 percent from 2014 to 2019, the numbers for African American/Black women grew even faster, by 50 percent.” As of 2019, in the U.S., “women of color account for 50 percent of all women-owned businesses.”
Black women are a rapidly growing group of entrepreneurs across the U.S., and Detroit is no different. From arts and culture to incubation and mentorship, Black women in Detroit are carving out spaces to expand their skills into the market and cultivate the next generation.
Moore, a nationally renowned figure carving a line in the rock ‘n’ roll space, talked about her experiences as an artist in the industry maneuvering through traditionally white, cis male-dominated spaces.
From being featured in the Apollo TV show, an Off-Broadway musical (with Shirley Caesar and CeCe Winans) to cultivating her own movement in Detroit (Black Women Rock), Moore said that she has reaped the benefits of basking in the shadows of others while making major moves of her own.
“I’ve been producing Black Women Rock and brought it from Atlanta to Detroit and made it an annual institution in Detroit,” Moore said of the 18th-year rock celebration held yearly at the Charles H. Wright Museum.
Moore said that the movement is all about highlighting Black women artists who play rock ‘n’ roll music, which she said is a “void in the industry.”
“It is grounded in taking care of the voices of Black women artists,” she said, adding that helping Black female artists get their well-deserved shine is something that she’s been doing for nearly two decades. “It’s a way for us to come together, to feel safe. … It’s a way for us to stay sane and lift each other up.”
Lifting other Black female voices up is a continual effort across various lanes.
Courtney McCluney, an assistant professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, is conducting a multi-year study of Black women entrepreneurs in Detroit. In a piece by Marketplace.org, McCluney spoke on her research and the tenacity of Black women in the face of challenges.
“Black women have, over the last three or four years, been the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S.,” said McCluney. “So, there are more of them starting businesses at higher rates, despite having disproportionate access to resources, including capital.”
She positioned Detroit’s business landscape, comparing it to many other cities in the U.S. regarding resource limitations, low population density and a high poverty rate. In the face of these challenges, there is an upward trend of local Black women looking to view this landscape as an opportunity for innovation.
Several prominent Black women entrepreneurs are noted in the study as making headway in their efforts, including Carla Walker-Miller’s start-up energy company and the founder of The Lip Bar, Melissa Butler.
“All of the Black women that I met in Detroit are amazingly resilient,” said McCluney to Marketplace. “And there was this really passionate desire to see the city not just come back and be reborn, but also to stay true to its roots and to be Detroit made.”
Dr. Geneva Williams, the founder of Dr. Geneva Speaks, LLC, a consultant, coach and leadership professional, told the Michigan Chronicle that lifting others while she rises is all about remembering where she came from.
“Because that’s how we got to where we are,” Williams said. “I think about myself – I really am on the shoulders … of a whole string of people, particularly women. Starting with my mom.”
Williams said that paying it back – and forward – at the same time is an art that comes from a place of confidence and a can-do attitude, especially as a Black woman.
“I believe that each of us, particularly as women, have an extraordinary responsibility to remember we are role models to young people and others,” she said, adding that young girls are “watching us.”
“Everything we do, say or speak up on is heard by sometimes people we don’t know are even listening or watching.”
She added that it’s never too late or early to essentially celebrate oneself along the way also.
“When I got on social media, I got a lot of [flack for being “too old”] but I have so much fun,” she said. “Really why I did it was I found it to be a really great way to reach women and girls about how we can all have this vibrant life and do whatever we want to do. I be having fun on TikTok now too … that’s my best place to be, to do me.”
According to a recent NPR article, “Black business ownership is higher than pre-pandemic. Women are driving that growth.” There are reports of women banding together to help them get through the COVID-related pitfalls of keeping businesses afloat across the country.
The communal mindset of sustaining a business community underscores the importance of cultivating a village of support within a capitalistic eco-system that is primed for individual-minded competition.
Detroit-based support groups such as TechTown have created both physical space and social support.
Launching in 2020, the entrepreneurship hub offers the STEM Entrepreneurial Excellence Program (STEEP Detroit) for Black/African American women interested in building out businesses in the STEM field. The 10-month program informs the participants how to increase growth, measure sustainability, and learn about capital investment.
Investments in Detroit’s untapped talent of Black women entrepreneurs has shown to be vital for the city’s economic growth and the overall prosperity of the community.
Pam Perry, an award-winning communications professional, told the Michigan Chronicle why she believes in pooling resources and support toward mentoring young Black women as business-savvy future entrepreneurs.
“It will always come back to you,” Perry said of being poised to help people in one’s lane, giftings and callings.
Perry, who teaches and mentors authors, speakers and entrepreneurs on how to build a platform and attract major media and publishing contracts is also the publisher of Speakers Magazine and co-founder of Digital Business Acceleration. She said that being in her field for decades shed a lot of light on many inequalities – especially what Black women face in the communications field. Decades later Perry is still making a difference and said that bridging the gap between what people need and what she offers is what it’s all about.
“I’m always giving back,” she said. “As a mentor, always be available for your mentee – it takes a lot for a mentee to ask for help.”
Perry added that she enjoys sharing her experiences with others looking to empower themselves and it all starts with networking.
“[The] main thing you can do when you’re around as long as I am … [is] introduce your colleagues coming up [to people] that they should know – that they need to know, and that is why mentorship is real important,” she said, adding that a sprinkle of passion in one’s profession doesn’t hurt either to get the ball rolling. “It is always good to love what you do.”