The last time I spoke to a group of people face-to-face was on March 10 in Roxbury’s Nubian Square. I worried that I would be a bad guest.
I am white, and most of the entrepreneurs in the group were people of color. I had just decided to stop shaking hands — and many people were still instinctively reaching out in greeting. News of the Biogen “super-spreader” event at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel had started to break that month, and I was wary of schmoozing at close range. So I spoke about how I cover the startup scene, took questions, and promptly left, without staying to enjoy snacks or soft drinks from a table of shared food.
We all were entering a weird time. The entrepreneurs in the room were part of the Entrepreneurship for All program (known as EforAll), run by a nonprofit that offers training in communities such as Roxbury, Holyoke, Lawrence, and Fall River. They were largely running nontech businesses: making hot sauce and raw honey, designing blazers for women, operating mobile billboards. And they were about to get some firsthand experience in trying to keep businesses alive amidst a pandemic and the closing of nonessential businesses — not to mention large-scale protests against police brutality and a national conversation about racism.
Three months after my visit, I checked in with a few of the people I’d met to see how they were doing.
“The one thing everyone has in common is that no one has navigated something like this before,” says Kofi Callender, executive director of the EforAll program in Roxbury. There have been discussions not only of business matters, but of the decision process around whether to participate in protest marches. One attorney who is taking part in the EforAll program offered her services to anyone who got arrested.
“People were generally lost, but they’re all striving,” Callender says. “They’re not giving up on their business. They’re trying to find a way to make it work.”
Yionel Torres runs Fleet Ad Media, which operates a mobile billboard — a truck with digital display screens on the sides. As expected, businesses drastically cut back their spending on marketing, Torres says.
So, he explains, the company shifted its focus to “the needs of the communities. A lot of people were confined to their homes, and unable to do basic celebrations of their birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and baby showers.” So the company started pitching its ability to drive by peoples’ homes to send personal messages.
“We also acknowledged all our brave health care workers by playing thank-you videos out front of the hospitals and participating in parades,” he says. That work was done for free — as was support for a drive-in movie night for the Revere restaurant Easy Pie, and a display of messages related to “protesting safely and social equality” at some Black Lives Matter marches.
“We are proud to have kept our heads above water during this pandemic,” Torres says, though revenue over the past few months has been less than half of what he had anticipated.
Brandon Ransom says he weathered a 70 percent drop in revenue during the spring; his company, Include Innovation, had been running technology courses and in-person computing centers, and providing website-building services to minority-run businesses through a program funded by the City of Boston. But the city contract was frozen in March, Ransom says. He has worked hard to shift his summer interns, who would have been helping to run the in-person computing centers, to doing website design from a distance. (A relief grant from the city has helped Include Innovations cover its rent.)
“We’re going to massively move online,” Ransom says. “The universe is telling us that that’s where we need to put our attention.”
He hopes that by assisting minority-owned businesses build or upgrade online storefronts, that will “reduce disparities. If you’re a cleaning company online, or an e-commerce company selling bed sheets, nobody needs to know who the founders and managers are — they just need to know what service you offer,” he says.
When I asked Ransom about the distraction factor of running a business during a public health crisis and large-scale protests, he said it was “absolutely sky-high, as a Black man.” But his hope is that the protests and the focus on systemic racism may actually be affecting the way governments and companies spend.
“I love Occupy Wall Street and all the work that was done by that movement, but guess what? Unfortunately, that one percent didn’t change too much,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve seen actual dollars shifting, based on protest.”
Gary St. Fleur cofounded the Sauce Team, which makes DNA Sauces — “sauces that will arrest your taste buds,” according to the label. Both he and his cofounder still have full-time jobs, “and it’s a ton of work,” says St. Fleur, who works in public relations at National Grid. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the process of obtaining a certificate to produce the sauces in a commercial kitchen, St. Fleur says, but “the good news is that we are a few weeks out before we begin producing and pitching to distributors.”
When the EforAll Roxbury program held its final pitch competition in mid-April, the entrepreneurs recorded their presentations, which were shown as part of an online event. Judges could ask questions live.
Jessica Sanon won first prize: $3,500. Her company, sySTEMic flow, partners with schools to help teach science and math to women of color.
Sanon, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, says she was the only Black woman in many of her math classes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and one of her goals for sySTEMic flow is to help more people like her develop the skills they will need to land well-paid jobs in the knowledge economy.
The company has had to quickly pivot its in-person educational programs to videoconferencing, Sanon says, where it can be harder to tell if a student is engaged or getting a little fuzzy on the concepts. It has also developed a project kit that can be mailed out and includes three STEM activities for kids, coupled with a live online Q&A session. The company is also offering an online math program for students in grades 6 to 12, which begins in July.
In her free time, Sanon says, she has been volunteering at her church to deliver food, water, and other supplies to elderly people in Brockton.
I asked Sanon the same question I’d put to Ransom, about staying focused in a chaotic time.
“I have to separate the businessperson from the rest of me, which is super-distracted, thinking of my friends and family members and making sure that they are OK,” Sanon says.
“As a business owner, there’s always the question about what is appropriate — should I be advertising this right now? It’s a constant battle. I think the only reason I am staying focused is because my main mission is to make sure we’re not neglecting our students educationally, so they can move forward into the next year.”
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.