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Throughout the pandemic, Black-owned businesses have been hit harder than their white counterparts. Now, South Jersey Black business owners are sharing the ways they are recovering as COVID-19 business restrictions in the state vanish.
Alisha Bell, business owner and head designer of Alisha Simone Elegant Event Flowers and Decor in Haddon Township, was a college student studying English at Rutgers University when she found flowers to be a wonderful medium to communicate with others. Nearly 30 years later, Bell specializes in creating couture floral designs and décor and with the help of the Comcast RISE program, a multi-year commitment that provides marketing, creative, media and technology services to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-owned small businesses, she is now utilizing technology to enhance her clients' experience.
In a typical year, Bell's business thrives off of events such as weddings and parties. But scheduled celebrations were put on hold and even canceled altogether due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings. For Bell, no events meant no business, worrying her and her clients.
"That was my entire business. You can imagine how many emails, how many phone calls I received from brides panicking, wondering not only, what am I going to do with my date and then the fear of the businesses around them were shutting their doors and asking are you going to stay closed forever? Will I ever be able to have my flowers? So I had concerns across the board," said Bell
According to data from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 41% of Black-owned businesses were lost due to the pandemic from February to April 2020, suffering the largest loss across racial demographics.
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Searching for relief from stunted profits, Bell tried to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the government but did not qualify for financial assistance. That's when her husband, Dante Bell, recommended she apply to the Comcast RISE program.
Bell was notified that her application was selected and to choose one of two prizes offered to her. Bell decided on the technology makeover, receiving three iPads, two laptops, a desktop computer, upgraded internet services, and more.
Since receiving the equipment, Bell has found new ways to enhance and maintain the close collaboration she had with her clients prior the pandemic while also keeping things clean to slow the spread of the virus.
"We've decided now with the iPads that everyone can be safe and that I don't need to have any devices that clients need to touch and I touch at the same time. So I'll be able to share my slideshow with my clients when they come in and they have their own iPad to swipe, and look at my gallery and all of the different ideas," said Bell.
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Comcast RISE recipients, Ashley Taylor owner of Creative Motion Arts Studio in Voorhees and Raym Long, business development manager of Reliant Office Systems in Willingboro, said the program has proven valuable.
Taylor, who also teaches at her performing arts school, said with the technology from Comcast, she was able to receive insight she had never been able to before giving her better knowledge of the pace in which her business is being seen.
"Something that I didn't know I needed was the cyber security. I get an update every week saying, here's what happened on your website this week. Sometimes it's harder for people of color to really get their idea, business, and themselves out in front of a wide range of people. You need to be seen and you need people to see your business," said Taylor.
Long, whose father started their office equipment business in 1985, believes that not only does the program open the door for other Black businesses owners but also something to leave with their children, bringing opportunity for the next generation.
"I think for us in the community, we have a history and we want to be able to leave something for our children, not just a car, we want to leave opportunity for our kids," said Long.
While some business owners have received outside assistance, others had to make it work on their own, and for Wayne Wylie who owns The Tea Store in Haddonfield with his wife Nadine Wylie, that meant tapping into his day skills to boost business.
After recently moving their store, the Wylie's found themselves on King's Highway and have been there for almost three years now selling teas, coffee, kettles and more. When the pandemic hit last year, the Wylie's store was forced to close down in March and customer emails came in, flooding Mr. Wylie's inbox. Prior to the pandemic, Wylie said he only wanted the store's website to be for informational purposes, meaning there would be no online shopping cart for customers. Then, when emails came in from customers who wanted to know if Wylie's store delivered, he knew it was time for a change.
"I do systems analysis and programming as a consultant so the store is just something on the side. Since Haddonfield is a destination spot, we would have people coming into town visiting who wanted to buy additional items or people live in Haddonfield and go off to school so they contacted us. So during the pandemic I started getting these emails asking do we ship so at that point I said okay I'm going to change over my entire system so that we could do orders online," said Wylie.
After buying a new point of sales system for his website and manually adding thousands of products online, Wylie's online sales have started to build something he attributes to utilizing his former knowledge in business management and doing what he loves.
"Our online business has increased during the pandemic," said Wylie. "I think it's a combination of all the things, the different stores I've had, the experience, and I like designing my own website and I like adding products so I did all of that myself so that helped because that's a big task to move your products."
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Nika Corbett, owner of Curate Noir, originally started her business online website selling subscription boxes of Black-owned products. Tapping into the community, she's expanded partnerships with Black-owned businesses and is opening a retail shop at Moorestown Mall.
Corbett was working in marketing when the pandemic hit, hindering demand for her services as businesses reduced spending on contractors. Then, Corbett began to think about how she could help smaller businesses who could benefit from her marketing service but at no cost. Corbett decided to create a subscription box in partnership with other Black business owners curating and delivering four to five trending Black-owned products with a new theme every month.
"It has been going very well, so now we're opening a store with the same concept except now it's a store where people can come in and purchase maybe just a single product from a Black-owned business," said Corbett. "We have a lot of different Black-owned and brown-owned businesses in the store from all over, not just New Jersey, but Michigan, California, all over the place."
Despite the risk in creating her business during a time when people were trying to figure out how they were going to pay their bills let alone afford a monthly subscription box, Corbett said her subscribers remain loyal customers.
"There was a risk where yes I think it's good we're helping each other, this is a great time to support one another but do you really want to pay me money every single month to do it? So that was a challenge," said Corbett. "But I put it out there and surprisingly, people who had subscribed from day one, I have them still to this day. So it's been good and now has offered the opportunity to expand that much more."
Although the state plans to move forward with the removal of percentage-based capacity restrictions on businesses due to the pandemic, many won't have a chance to reopen in any capacity, making the work that Corbett does to uplift Black-owned businesses all the more meaningful.
"It's really exciting because the whole premise behind it is to help other businesses to thrive not just myself," said Corbett. It's giving those brands that think that I don't have a chance anymore because of the pandemic and I say 'yes, you do have a chance. I have a shelf for you.' I took a risk during this time and I'm going to continue to."
As for other business owners who may be struggling to recover from the impact of the pandemic, Corbett said she has one piece of advice is to stop telling yourself you can't do it.
"We will talk ourselves out of everything, or we'll over think it. We can be our own biggest obstacle in our vision. My biggest piece of advice I'd give is: get out of your own way."
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