Courtney Blagrove’s oat-milk ice cream is all the rage. She opened her first store over a year ago and landed a national shipping deal. Fans pay tribute with TikTok videos not only to celebrate the luxurious, creamy concoction but to show how much they love supporting a Black-owned business.
“I don’t even know how they do it,” @simaraland says on one video. “Well, I mean it is Black woman-owned so probably the Black girl magic.”
With write-ups in The New York Times, Forbes, and Black Enterprise, Blagrove is entertaining expansion opportunities from California to Florida, but success is bittersweet: She wanted her first brick-and-mortar shop to be in Boston, where she cofounded Whipped Urban Dessert Lab. But plans to be in the Seaport District were stymied after she ran into trouble dealing with her landlord, WS Development, over a 200-square-foot space.
In January 2020, after 18 months of planning and more than $80,000 in costs, she walked away and opened in New York City instead.
“These are the types of things that happen, and it gets swept under the rug,” said Blagrove. “People need to know our story.”
WS will tell you it did everything possible to help Whipped Urban open at Seaport Square, where high-profile tenants include L.L. Bean, Shake Shack, Lululemon, and Equinox fitness club.
“We believed in Whipped and wanted to see them succeed in the Seaport,” WS said in a statement. “Our team invested hundreds of hours over a year and half in design and permitting to try to help them bring their concept to bear, as we’ve done with hundreds of small business operators. ... We wish the outcome was different.”
The details of what went wrong between Whipped Urban and WS will come across to some as a garden-variety dispute between tenant and landlord. The two sides sparred over design, permits, timelines, and rent owed; each blames the other for what went wrong.
But one thing’s clear: This was a case of lost opportunity. We have so few high-profile Black-owned businesses in Boston that when one gets away, it hurts. We shouldn’t just all move on. We need to ask why, and what more could have been done.
Consider this a call to action, not just for WS, but for all those who play a role in shaping our Main Streets. The time is now — during a historic mayoral race, a racial reckoning, and an economic upheaval that is emptying storefronts and reshaping retail districts. Candidates, developers, and landlords ought to be poring over programs, policies, and regulations to see if they go far enough to reverse structural racism that prevents entrepreneurs of color from flourishing.
Black-owned businesses can reach their full potential only if they have all of us as customers. Too often, they find success in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. I still count only a handful of Black-owned businesses in the Seaport, more than three years after the Globe spelled out the neighborhood’s lack of diversity in a widely read and discussed series in 2017. At WS’s Seaport Square, I can think of just one Black-owned business — Seaport Barbers — that is not on a short-term lease.
WS would not provide a racial breakdown of its long-term retail tenants but confirmed that nine of 44 leases, or about 20 percent, are held by businesses owned by people of color. The developer cited “tenants’ privacy and requests not to have their businesses publicly categorized along racial lines.”
That’s an unsatisfying response given that we know that what gets measured, gets done.
This made me wonder: Is WS, one of the most prominent developers in the region, the problem here? To that, Black entrepreneurs who have worked with WS offer an unequivocal answer: No.
Andrew Alicea, owner of the aforementioned Seaport Barbers which opened in 2017 at Seaport Square, said it was easy for him to get a lease and he has had a good experience with WS. “I am so happy to be in business there,” he told me.
Jae’da Turner, founder and managing director of Black Owned Bos., a platform and event agency for Black-owned businesses, has been collaborating with WS since August 2020 on an outdoor market at a Seaport park the developer owns.
The market takes place about once a month and features two to three dozen Black-owned businesses selling everything from jewelry to pet treats. She said the market draws a diverse crowd and encourages a sense of belonging for Black businesses and customers.
“I will be walking by, and I’ll hear, ‘This is the most Black people I have seen in this area ever,’ ” Turner said.
All of which makes this situation with Whipped Urban so frustrating. WS is known for helping small businesses grow, including those owned by people of color. And yet here we have a 200-square-foot space, a shoebox in the world of retail, representing a fraction of a fraction of the 1 million square feet of restaurants and shops that WS plans to lease at Seaport Square, and an experienced commercial landlord and an ambitious Black entrepreneur couldn’t find a way to get this over the finish line.
“Intention isn’t enough,” said Jen Faigel, executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen, a food business incubator in Dorchester, where Whipped Urban honed its concept.
Faigel, whose incubator works primarily with entrepreneurs of color, said most of them do not consider expanding into the Seaport because it’s expensive and exclusive. They worry their niche concepts, such as Haitian food, won’t be able to grow a customer base there.
Whipped Urban, however, “should have been a great fit,” said Faigel.
WS, the Chestnut Hill-based developer, helps entrepreneurs of color grow through an incubation team that works with small businesses on everything from branding to store build out. Having a mix of national chains and locally owned tenants is a hallmark of WS shopping centers.
“Our focus is on creating a pipeline through a variety of entry points,” said a WS spokesperson. “We feel this is exactly how we change a neighborhood over time.”
But formal programs alone won’t create equity. Sometimes small unconscious decisions can have an outsize impact. Call them blind spots, and they often prevent us from seeing the full view of systemic inequities.
Consider what could have been with Black entrepreneur Heather White, founder and chief executive of boutique fitness studio TrillFit. In 2016, TrillFit, known for its hip-hop style, was brought in through a WS partnership to do an outdoor class at a Seaport park that White said was well attended. The following year, however, WS created its own outdoor fitness program, Seaport Sweat, but did not invite back TrillFit, which at the time was not as well known as it is today.
When White and her team were ready to open their first studio in 2018, she said that because of her experience with WS, she “crossed the Seaport completely off our list.”
“TrillFit is a big, popular incredible business. We would have loved to be in the Seaport,” said White, who opened her first studio in Mission Hill. “It’s not a place for us.”
WS said it has no record of working with TrillFit in the Seaport in 2016 because the fitness studio was engaged through a third-party, not by WS. Seaport Sweat features instructors of color, and WS currently works with TrillFit at a property in Chestnut Hill.
This is a classic example of how people of color view something as a slight, while white folks have no idea what went wrong.
Imagine how things could have played out differently had WS asked TrillFit to be part of Seaport Sweat. Perhaps White would have eventually expanded in the Seaport. Instead her second studio will be in New York City, opening at the end of the year.
When Courtney Blagrove was ready to open her first storefront, she signed a five-year lease in 2018 with WS. She built a dessert business, after baking to make extra money while pursuing her doctorate in nutrition and metabolism at Boston University. Whipped Urban planned to sell mini cupcakes and vegan oat-milk ice cream at its Boston location.
But the relationship with WS got off to a bad start with what Blagrove considered disparate treatment. The company would not allow her to have a digital menu board, even though Blagrove pointed out other restaurant tenants had these displays. A WS employee, according to Blagrove, told her the company was concerned about the “risk” of Whipped Urban “making political statements.”
Blagrove felt it was a racially insensitive remark. She did not tell WS at the time, explaining that entrepreneurs of color often face this dilemma — choosing between being heard or being labeled difficult.
“If we bring up this issue, are we going to mess up the opportunity we have?” she said.
WS executives said they reviewed the matter and “categorically deny that anyone at WS ever made that statement to Whipped.”
Blagrove said that review did not include WS contacting Whipped Urban about who might have made that comment.
By the fall of 2019, the relationship had soured so much that WS offered to let Blagrove leave without financial penalty. Blagrove wanted to give it another go and so did WS, but with no better results.
In January 2020, Blagrove decided to take up WS’s offer to walk away, but by then it wasn’t so easy. A lawyer for WS sent a default letter in February 2020 seeking nearly $20,000, a copy of which Blagrove shared with the Globe. In the middle of a pandemic that has crushed small businesses, WS continued to seek money until September 2020, when both parties agreed to a settlement, with Whipped Urban paying a $1,000 termination fee and WS keeping the $4,825 security deposit.
Meanwhile, Whipped Urban had been operating a pop-up store at a New York food hall in the summer of 2019. Blagrove said it was much easier to do business in New York. In February 2020, she was able to open an 800-square-foot storefront in Manhattan, only three months after signing a lease.
Blagrove still wants to be in Boston — the company is still headquartered here — but she couldn’t shake her experience in the Seaport.
“It is disheartening, especially when they are trying to diversify a place like the Seaport District,” said Blagrove.
The big takeaways here: Why can’t more Black-owned businesses thrive here, specifically in the Seaport, and why does success seem easier elsewhere? These stories permeate Boston: Black entrepreneurs who launch businesses here but have better opportunities out of state.
City Hall has the levers to make landlords and developers accountable on diversity. The Boston Planning & Development Agency has already adopted the Massachusetts Port Authority model of scoring projects on public land based on the diversity of a bidder’s development team and equity partners. Next up should be disclosures regarding the diversity of retail tenants. Imagine how the makeup of Boston’s commercial districts could be different if we measure the progress we’ve made — or the lack of it.
We even have the funds to do something bold — a spigot of federal stimulus dollars that could boost Black entrepreneurs and other small business owners of color from subsidizing rent to funding expansion.
Boston is full of well-meaning white folks who mistake progress for victory. Yet when we take stock, we realize we are not where we need to be.
What can often hold Boston back is a lack of imagination and the political will to do things differently.
Let’s not have that be us anymore.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.