Research tells us that in 2021, Black spending power is around $1.6 trillion. This population is not just spending, they’re also supporting the economy by starting new businesses. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2021, there were more than three million African American-owned businesses in the nation. Now is a great time to reflect on some of the African American business leaders around the country, and learn more about the brands they’re building.
15 Black-owned brands making a difference
While this list certainly isn’t exhaustive, here are a few unique, successful, black-owned businesses.
1. Hope For Flowers®
Tracy Reese, Designer and Founder
Tracy Reese began her journey into fashion with a self-named brand founded in 1998 in New York City. Some of the most influential names out there, including Oprah Winfrey and former First Lady Michelle Obama, have worn her apparel.
In 2019, Reese created the Hope for Flowers brand, which focuses on using sustainable, often organic fabrics in its clothing. In addition, the organization also empowers young men and women by supporting art programs in public schools across Detroit, Michigan, Tracy’s home city.
From an interview with The Helm®:
“I wanted to make clothing that was somewhat affordable—I wanted to be able to reach real customers. So right before I graduated from Parsons in the mid-’80s, I got a job at a contemporary company designed by French designer Martine Sitbon ... It was a really good first job, but after three years my dad was like, “You need to do your own thing.” And I was like, ‘I do?’ He planted [the] seed. A lot of friends had branched out, and they were launching their own brands.”
Liz Abunaw, Founder
A lack of fresh food options and natural ingredients on Chicago’s west side inspired Liz Abunaw to launch the Forty Acres Fresh Market. Abunaw’s business, which launched operations in 2018, works to provide fresh produce to underserved communities. While the company typically works from pop-up markets, with its recent success, Abunaw hopes to open and run a brick-and-mortar location in the near future.
Abunaw details the beginnings of the Forty Acres Fresh Market as such:
“I started Forty Acres Fresh Market over two years ago in response to the lack of fresh food options on Chicago's West Side. On January 20, 2018 Forty Acres Fresh Market launched its first pop-up market at Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business to much positive customer feedback. We carried a full selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at an everyday low price.”
Abbey Wemimo and Samir Goel, Co-Founders
Nigerian-born entrepreneur Abbey Wemimo and his business partner Samir Goel started the Esusu mobile platform in 2018 to help marginalized communities with their finances. The program is meant to help individuals save money, build credit, and otherwise understand and manage their finances. Wemimo and Goel strive to help people from all walks of life, catering to over 250,000 users to date.
Wemimo has explained his and Goel’s mission as follows:
“We are working hard to pave a permanent bridge to financial access by providing financial solutions for low-to-middle income consumers. We want to give everyone a fighting chance to have a financial identity and to create financial wellness for marginalized communities.”
4. BLK + GRN®
Kristian Henderson, Founder
Many retail stores sell products marketed towards Black women, but as Kristian Henderson found out, few contain healthy, sustainable ingredients and many struggle to stay open. She tried to solve both problems with the launch of BLK + GRN, an online marketplace that curates a variety of naturally-sourced goods from Black-owned brands.
Henderson has explained the following about BLK + GRN:
“At our core, we are a curated retail platform. We find brands that meet our requirements, purchase products wholesale, and sell them to our customers. Everything comes to our warehouse so we can ship everything in one box. That's for sustainability purposes, and it also allows BLK+GRN to control fulfillment and customer service. Every product is hand-selected to meet our specific guidelines and tested before we sell it.”
5. 4D Healthware®
Star Cunningham, Founder
Star Cunningham is an expert on wearable medical technology, system migration, high-speed Internet product delivery, and more. Taking inspiration from her own experience managing three chronic conditions, she created 4D Healthware wearable technology to provide a more convenient diagnostic experience for both physicians and patients.
Cunningham has explained why she started 4D Healthware:
“I have long suffered from chronic conditions that require close monitoring of medications, lifestyle factors and exercise habits. So, dealing with this first-hand, I realized the immense challenges that healthcare faced. Following my last position with IBM®, I wanted to transition from technology into the healthcare sector. I interviewed for numerous positions, but wasn’t hired because I didn’t have the typical healthcare background. I don’t see healthcare as a healthcare problem, I see it as a data problem.”
10 Early Black business pioneers
We’d like to spend a little extra time honoring Black leaders of the past who’ve helped to pave the way for a better future. With limited access to education and funding, the accomplishments of these business leaders are beyond impressive.
1. Lunsford Lane — Tobacconist
Born in 1803, Lunsford Lane exhibited entrepreneurial talent and a determination to buy his freedom. He is most famous for writing a slave narrative that included descriptions of his business activities while in bondage and his troubles securing his and his family’s freedom. With the help of his father, Lane sold pipes and developed a special tobacco with a “peculiarly pleasant flavor.” By working as a tobacconist, Lunsford Lane amassed $1,000, enough to purchase his freedom.
2. Madam C.J. Walker — Haircare expert
Known as the first Black woman millionaire in the US, Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) perfected a line of homemade hair care products specifically for Black women. Her inspiration was her own experience with hair loss, and she ended up using some of her fortunes to fund scholarships for other women.
3. William J. Brown — Shoemaker
William J. Brown was born into a free African American family in Rhode Island and faced discrimination and unethical treatment as he established his trade and career. He described his uphill struggle to find work and obtain respect from his fellow New Englanders in his autobiography, The Life of William J. Brown of Providence. He eventually became a skilled and successful shoemaker.
4. Maggie Lena Walker
Walker was an entrepreneur and social activist, as well as the first American woman to become a bank president. But she didn’t stop there. In 1902, she established a newspaper, followed by her own bank (becoming the first woman to do so). She inspired people around her to also become independent and self-sufficient business owners.
5. James Forten, Sr. — Sailmaker
James Forten, Sr. learned the sail-making trade after the Revolution. By developing a tool to help maneuver the large sails, Forten built up one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. He employed both Black and white workers. Because of his business acumen, Forten became one of the wealthiest Philadelphians in the city.
6. Annie Turnbo Malone — Hair care expert
Walker wasn’t the only haircare entrepreneur. Annie Turnbo Malone revolutionized how Black women cared for their hair, selling her own products door to door. By 1902, she had a small team working with her, and a couple of years later, she was able to open her own salon.
7. William Johnson — Barber
After being emancipated by his master in 1820, William Johnson became a successful Black businessman in Mississippi, operating a barber shop, loaning money, and acquiring real estate. Johnson bought the barber shop for $300 and taught the trade to other free African Americans.
8. Elizabeth Keckley — Dressmaker
After purchasing freedom in St. Louis, Elizabeth Keckley moved to Washington, D.C., and became the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, producing elegant gowns for the capital's elite women. Her 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes, explores her enthusiasm and initiative in creating her business.
9. Mifflin Gibbs and Peter Lester — Merchant
A self-taught carpenter who arrived in San Francisco with a mere $0.60, Mifflin Gibbs got a job working at a shoe store. There, he met Peter Lester, another free Black man. The two started up their own business and went on to make a fortune selling luxury shoes. Gibbs and Lester would emerge as leading activists in the local Black community, and Gibbs later became a businessman, lawyer, politician, and abolitionist.
10. Mary Edmonia Lewis — Artist
In 1862, Lewis was attacked and left for dead, but nothing was going to stop her. With both African and Native American roots, she went on to become an internationally renowned sculptor. Lewis challenged stereotypes that haunted both women and minorities, and now you can find some of her work at the Smithsonian.
A long path to progress
While there are still obstacles to overcome and challenges to face, SmartBiz celebrates how the Black community is getting more opportunities to succeed. We salute the leaders of the past, those of the present, and the ones that are yet to come.