Panelists discuss pandemic, BLM’s impact on Black-owned businesses

Caitlin Ryan

Staff Writer

With the pandemic creating widespread economic hardship and Black Lives Matter encouraging consumers to support Black-owned businesses, panelists at the School of Management and USF’s Graduate Student Senate’s joint event titled “BLM and Business” discussed how they navigated the last 12 months. 

Viewers joined a conversation via Zoom March 26. Junior math and physics major AJ Alston emceed the event, which featured Black business owners and experts. 

Black businesses have had to make major strategy adjustments to adapt to public closures and increased digitalization. Keba Konte, one of the event panelists and founder of Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, relies on “about 50-60% of our business through office accounts and through office coffee services,” which prompted Konte to adapt to new coffee drinking habits, which were mainly taking place at home. Konte’s “saving grace” was the rollout of a new mobile Red Bay Coffee van, which compensated for store closures. 

School of Management associate professor Monika Hudson was another panelist. Hudson had to adapt to school closures and move her business-focused instruction online. “One of the things that was particularly concerning to me was my fall class that looks at doing ethnography on commercial corridors in San Francisco and whether or not we were going to be able to do that,” she said. 

Fortunately, some students who remained in the Bay Area were able to complete Hudson’s community engagement project and, while doing so, they stumbled upon the last Black-owned ice cream shop in San Francisco. Hudson said, “We would not have had that particular story had we not had to pivot and be intentional about the kinds of businesses we were going to be profiling as a part of this work.”

When Alston asked, “Have you found relief from the community, the city, the federal government?” The question lingered before hesitant responses were offered. Konte said Red Bay Coffee was grateful to receive federal relief from two Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, but had gotten very little support from the local government. 

Konte said, “I was posting videos and giving daily updates and people from around our geographic location support it, but really we got support all over the country.” Emphasizing the importance of community, he said, “The first relief and the most immediate and sustaining has come from our community, and I’m defining community as people who know and love us and engage with us.”

Highlighting the reciprocal relationship between the community and businesses, Hudson said, “Community investment is a natural part of these businesses.”

The final panelist, Andrew Carter, who is the donations manager for Dandelion Chocolate, moved the conversation forward by expanding on the idea of institutional relief for Black businesses. He said, “In the era of BLM, and I kind of beg to differ, this is the era of reparations that we are just catching on to and pushing. So when you ask how the government supported me, well, I feel like I’m asking a question that has been asked by generations of people who look like me, which is: ‘Where’s my money?’” 

In response to San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s plan to reinvest $120 million from the policing budget into Black communities, Carter made it clear that “defunding the police and supporting businesses is not reparations.” 

Konte said if Black folks see reparation checks in the next year, “We’d have Black Lives Matter to thank for that.”

To wrap up the conversation Alston asked, “How do you think we can take this momentum from the moment now and push through?”

 Moving forward, the panelists agreed in order to ensure economic equity, the federal government needs to “target these predominantly chocolate cities around America and invest in some massive infrastructure startups: grants, facilities and businesses loans; free money,” Konte said.

However, Hudson observed a lull in momentum when it comes to supporting Black businesses. She said, “I saw a lot of statements from larger corporations about what they were going to do in terms of Black-owned businesses. I saw the list of Black-owned businesses and encouragement of individuals to take advantage of those businesses during that time period and I don’t see that now.” 

Konte added, “Even though I’ve seen discourse [around supporting Black businesses] quiet down, we are getting partnerships.” Red Bay Coffee is now for sale at Trader Joe’s, becoming the only non-Trader Joe’s brand coffee for sale on their shelves.   

From community mobilization, to local and federal governments, to corporations; it has taken an abundance of support to keep small Black-owned businesses afloat during pandemic months. Alston said, “My main takeaway from today’s conversation is that Black businesses are key to economic growth, and our participation in business as well as our ability to start businesses and support each other is a key step to moving forward.” 

Caitlin Ryan is a sophomore English major and is the Foghorn’s Opinion Deputy Editor. She has previously covered University Life. She can be reached at cryan8@dons.usfca.edu

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