In late 2017, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City held five focus groups with 34 black women who own businesses in Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Omaha and Denver. During these groups, four questions were asked to determine motivations, challenges and other characteristics of black women business owners.

  • Why did you start?
  • What were your challenges?
  • What support did you receive?
  • What do you wish was available to you when you started your business?

A summary of the major themes from the answers make up the basis for this section of the report. The subsections will consist of key entrepreneurship characteristics, startup motivations, business challenges, support systems, recommendations by black women business owners, the impact of race and gender and the role of faith and belief. This table shows the major themes shared in each question.

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The two dominant entrepreneurial characteristics that emerged from the focus groups about black women who own businesses were self-learning and determination. Many of the women said that starting and running a successful business required them to constantly learn business skills from a wide variety of sources. Some of this learning consisted of formal classes in the community; for others, it was experiential learning. Determination, or the ability to persist and continue to strive despite obstacles, also was a common theme shared by participants.

Self-Learning

“And so I knew my craft, but I didn’t know necessarily how to run a business. So, everything I just kind of learned as I went and it’s working for me now.”

“ … We just started going to One Million Cups. We started getting more involved and I got a consulting gig that introduced us to Kauffman and FastTrac and so I went through the program.”

Determination

“You must keep going for it, otherwise, you’ll always deal with that fear stage and that will keep you stuck. That will hinder you.”

“Hard work and sweat, tears, blood.”

“But then when you have people who are supposed to support you and they are not really supporting you, it kind of plays on you. But you’ve got to encourage yourself and tell yourself, ‘I can do this. It’s already in me, and this is what I know I can do.’ ”

 

The purpose of the “Why did you start” question was to determine the primary motivations for business ownership by black women. There are a variety of entrepreneurship motivation theories in the research. One common theory is the push/ pull theory of entrepreneurship.15 Push motivation occurs when an entrepreneur chooses to start a business in an attempt to escape an adverse situation. This could mean starting a business because the household does not have enough income. Pull motivation occurs when an entrepreneur sees an opportunity to take advantage of. This opportunity could be the desire to start a business in a field they are passionate about or they are presented with a business opportunity.

As might be expected, startup motivation often is a combination of push and pull factors. For example, if an individual sees there is financial opportunity in starting a business, but that it would require them to leave a job they enjoy, they may not pursue the opportunity. Conversely, if they did not enjoy the job as much, the pull opportunity may be sufficient for them to take the entrepreneurship risk. The following shares the dominant push and pull motivations shared by women in the focus groups.

Push Themes

As might be expected, startup motivation often is a combination of push and pull factors. For example, if an individual sees there is financial opportunity in starting a business, but that it would require them to leave a job they enjoy, they may not pursue the opportunity. Conversely, if they did not enjoy the job as much, the pull opportunity may be sufficient for them to take the entrepreneurship risk. The following shares the dominant push and pull motivations shared by women in the focus groups.

Workplace Treatment

A number of women identified negative workplace treatment as a primary motivation for starting their own business. For some women, it was conflict with management; for some, it was lack of flexibility during a major life crisis; and for others it was the perception of unfair treatment.

“I had a very terrible boss who did not appreciate the 100 percent that I was giving the organization, and I just prayed and said, ‘Lord, just please,’ and He’s given provision … .”

“ … I used to work for a large corporation, and then my son got sick ... . Companies could choose year to date from last occurrence (of family medical leave), or they could choose the calendar year. The year prior I was diagnosed with cancer, so I had taken off six weeks. My son got cancer the following year, and so it was all within a 12-month period, but two different years, and the company chose to do the 12 weeks (year to date) that way. Because of this I was out of leave time and he was diagnosed with cancer. When my son died, I was thinking, ‘Gosh, who wants to work for a company that would make you choose between coming to work and being with your dying child?’ ”

Perception of Workplace Value

The perception of being undervalued in the workplace was a dominant push theme. This issue showed in the form of high performance versus low reward, access to less opportunity and a lack of commitment by the employer.

“I worked in corporate America for most of my life it feels like, and I finally found my dream job. I was excelling; I was getting to do everything that I wanted to do, and then the company sold. When they sold, I just assumed that I would make it through because of who I am, and every boss I’ve ever been under has always excelled, and they all got promotions based off a lot of times what I suggested to them. And no, I didn’t make it through and I got laid off. It killed me because I was in leadership development and organizational development so I played a lot of roles in the company. The biggest part was my team and I had to sit around a table like this and watch my team cry—men, women—because they believed so much in what we had set up, and it broke me. I said I’ll never do it again. But I never put someone else’s dream and legacy above my own.”

General Workplace Dissatisfaction

Many women expressed a general dissatisfaction with the workplace that manifested itself as workplace fatigue.

“I worked in corporate America for 19 years in management, and I got into corporate America out of necessity to take care of my family. I had a greater opportunity than my significant other at the time and it took me away from them. So it was an offset. I committed to it, worked a lot of hours, traveled a lot, and I burned myself out. That’s what led me to start my own business.”

“I went back to work so I could get health insurance and those kinds of things. It was fun for a while because I looked at it as a job with a purpose. For many years I looked at it that way until it started becoming more of a burden than blessing. I decided I couldn’t play that game anymore. So I decided to restart my business.”

Workplace challenges served as a significant push factor and often were identified as a catalyst for black women when they launched their business.

Pull Themes 

As previously mentioned, pull motivations are opportunity-based motivations that pull an individual into starting a business. While impossible to weight as a motivating factor relative to push themes, participants’ comments about pull motivations were nearly double the comments about push Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City 17 motivations. The four main pull motivations identified were passion, opportunity, service and flexibility.

Passion

Passion for the particular industry or business type was the pull motivation most often expressed by focus group participants.

“I would do someone’s wedding or someone’s company party, mostly because I have a love and passion for the industry. It’s what I went to school for. I only wanted to do it the right way. I just said, ‘Well, I’m going to start my own business.’ ”

“I’ve always had my own style and had that passion for fashion and wanted to be different and stand out from others. So I just kind of followed that and I did it and did pretty good.”

Opportunity

The participants identified taking advantage of an opportunity as the second-largest pull motivation. Women identified opportunity in two primary ways: the owner identified a market-based opportunity to expand their business, or a business opportunity was presented to them by another source.

“Every organization that I was working with always raised more money. I thought, ‘Hmm, I’m on to something here.’ Then when I found I could actually make money at it, and make a lot, then I thought I’m really on to something.”

“Then maybe two years later, the second (salon) owner, got an opportunity to move back to Texas. So she offered the salon to me … . I felt right there that was a blessing for me and I had to keep telling myself, ‘Do not walk away from this blessing.’ ”

Other Pull Themes

Two other themes that stood out as pull motivation factors were flexibility and service. Multiple women said the ability to have flexibility and freedom were important. In some cases, this was expressed as a desire to be available for family; others said it was a desire not to be bound by workplace hierarchy or to be their own boss. In regard to service, a number of women said the motivating factor for operating their business was a desire to help people through their business.

“I started because I wanted flexibility in my schedule and lifestyle. It was very important for me to be able to contribute to be a single mom; being able to support my kids, and being able to still go to their games and still do some other activities to be a mom.”

“I started my business because I worked (with disadvantaged children) for 10 years. They didn’t know how to survive on their own. So I started a leadership academy because they didn’t have basic interpersonal leadership skills. They didn’t know how to fill out an application; they didn’t know how to use an ATM.”

The Complexity of Motivation

Women in the focus groups mentioned pull motivation more than push motivation. However, motivation is complex, and either push or pull motivations may serve as a greater motivator depending on the entrepreneur and how significant the push or pull motivation is. The dominance of the push motivation factors related to black women’s experience in the workplace suggest what may be at play is the disadvantaged theory of entrepreneurship. Disadvantaged theory of entrepreneurship suggests that labor market discrimination affects the rate of entrepreneurship among minority women.16 While only one participant suggested her negative workplace experience was because of race or gender, this also may be a factor. What can be confidently suggested is that many of the participants were motivated by positive pull factors. It is worth noting that only one participant identified money as a motivator. Like identifying race and gender as a factor in their negative workplace experiences, the fact that a desire to make money is not a major motivation theme could be because it is implied that one starts business at least in part to generate revenue.

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Shanita Bryant, Magnolia’s On The Move

The “What were your challenges when starting” question was asked to gather insight into the various obstacles black women faced when starting their businesses. The top two challenges were business knowledge and finance, with marketing challenges being a close third. 

General Business Knowledge

Participants seeking to start their own business stated that having a general knowledge of how to organize and operate a business was their biggest challenge. For some women, it was lack of knowledge about business basics. For others, it was general knowledge about the industry in which they wanted to start their business. This is consistent with research on the lack of business knowledge among black entrepreneurs at startup.

“It’s not knowing enough. My family has always had jobs. I’ve got people in my family who make six figures, but they don’t know how to run a company. They don’t know how to work for themselves. I’ve always been a good leader, but I didn’t necessarily know how to work for myself. I own a retail store, and I’ve never worked in retail.” 

“Mine was understanding the requirements when you contract with the federal government. I went to contract (with a government procurer) and he says, ‘Can you bond?’ ‘Yeah, I have a bond.’ I was excited. But it wasn’t the bond that I needed.”

Finance

Financing also was seen as a major business challenge. This challenge was expressed in three themes: general lack of financing, lack of venture capital for businesses more oriented toward high growth and lack of financial management knowledge.  

“I’m doing it out of my own pocket, funding it myself off of my labor. Sometimes it’s hard when you do it like that because you don’t have everything in place to be successful. It makes it hard to succeed sometimes. That was my biggest obstacle in real estate, just having the money to make the money.”

"Being financially literate. I used to go to work and make money and do whatever with the money. In business however, you’ve got to move your money way different. I always knew how to make money; I didn’t always know what to do with it and how to apply it the right way.”

“I’ve done all these things to get to this point, but the real hurdle is going to be between now and June of next year when my seed round closes. If I can’t raise that money, who can? I mean, I’m to that point where I have done everything I’ve needed to do. I did research. I put together a business plan. I have my projections and pro forma. I’m operating. I have revenue on the books. I have hired employees. But I won’t be able to physically pay for the space that I’ve signed a lease for without raising some additional capital.”

Marketing

Identifying and marketing to their target market was a challenge for many participants. Many women indicated that they initially had a product, but struggled to find a market that would be willing to purchase that product. Others discussed the challenges of finding the right marketing mix or strategy to expand their business. 

“How do you get the client? I had to understand that. I had to actually put down what that client looked like, how do they dress, where they shopped, where they did all those things and market to that.”

“Just learning different ideas, different tricks, different marketing strategies is a challenge right now because there’s so many things you can do. What can we do? Can we do more commercials? Can we get on the radio? What are some more ideas that we can do to get ourselves out there, especially as black women.”

Fear

Many women said fear was an obstacle during the startup phase of their business and that it emerged in different areas. For some, it was a fear that they were not capable; for others, it was fear of taking the risk associated with being a business owner.
 
“I think we all battle our inner selves already. We ask ourselves, ‘Are we good enough to do this?’ The fear plays in us. But you’ve got to encourage yourself and say, ‘I can do this; it’s already in me, and this is what I know I can do.’ ”

“I have thought about it often and my fear is I’m a single mother and I don’t have a family here, and I don’t have any other support. If I have to go full time, I have to pay my rent. That’s where I’m struggling with, but I want to do this and I want to be successful but I’m still tied up with this other fear.”

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Catina Taylor, Dream KC

Black women were asked to share what support they received when they launched their businesses. Many of the responses, however, were about the lack of support they received. Responses were split nearly evenly between what support they received and the lack of support they received. Therefore, this subsection will identify participants’ responses to both.

Support Received

Many of the black women who own businesses said family and friends were their primary sources of support. This often was their significant other or parent. Second to family and friends was a mentor or key individual. This could be a formal or informal mentor, or a technical expert that provided support and advice in a key business area. In addition, many women said their social network, such as a church or their general network of business relationships, provided support

Family and Friends

Participants cited family and friends as the most significant source of support. This support most often was in reference to encouragement, but in other instances it was financial support or business insight.

“My biggest support came, fortunately, from my mother. I had the dream; my mama had the money. So she took her retirement money and she invested it in me. That’s where the B&B comes from. She was the Queen B and I’m the Baby B. Now I’m the Queen B and my daughter is the Baby B. So my first level of support was my mama. To this day, if I breathe it, my mom believes it.”

“I’m thankful that I’ve had a lot of support, my husband being number one behind the scenes, a very quiet supporter. You rarely see him out with me at events or anything, but I’m very thankful for him.”

 “I have people in my corner that are pushing me. One of my girlfriends texted me the other day, ‘Have you started on such and such yet?’ Because I know those are the things that I need to do.”

Mentors and Key Individuals

“I had a great banker who helped me understand the structure for getting the paperwork filed correctly. I had a few struggles with that, just understanding what is the best structure.”

“For me, it was a contracting officer that actually taught me how to maneuver. I could call him off the record, and we had several conversations, and he said, ‘I wouldn’t do it this way, I would look at it this way.’ ”

“But periodically, me and (my mentor), we will talk sometimes in the parking lot or we would meet sometimes at Starbucks and we would talk. She would say, ‘You can do this, you can get this done.’ I say, ‘I know I can.’ ”

Social Network

“But I have five dynamic wonderful women in Texas. We call ourselves ‘The Girls.’ Anytime we need a sounding board, a cry fest, a laugh fest, a wine fest, or whatever we need to get off our chest and get back on track we talk. I believe truly in having that structure of women.”

“Our church family invested into us a lot.”

Support Challenges

While many women said they had some support when they started their business, there was a consensus that black women who start a business do not have a strong enough support system. Family and friends were seen as the primary form of support by many women, while others saw them as obstacles. In addition, while mentoring was seen as a support for some women, the absence of mentors within the support system also was an issue. One race-specific issue that emerged in the discussion about support was community-centered challenges. Many women said the black community did not provide adequate support for their business.

Family and Friends

“I found that the journey to entrepreneurship can be lonely sometimes even with the people who are closest to you. I’ve had so many people say, ‘You know, when are you going to apply for a real job,’ or things like that. It’s hard to get people to jump on board with you.”

“I was a junior in high school and I went home and told my mom, ‘One day I’m going to own my own business.’ My mother told me, ‘Just finish high school and go to college and get a good job.’ “

Absence of Mentoring

“Just having a good source of information that I felt like I could trust. I had my dad who was positive, but no one in my family had owned a business. I didn’t have that relationship with somebody where I could say, ‘Uncle started a business’, and have that inside knowledge. I think that’s what was missing, someone with information that I know truly was looking out for me.”

“I really didn’t have any support and I didn’t know where to go. A mentor would have been amazing.”

Community

And if you come to our shops and shop, and you go to her restaurant to eat, we need that support amongst ourselves especially when we’re women and trying to grow our businesses. We don’t have that.”

“But as far as the community is concerned or with clients or other people, women, black women or anybody who’s in business, I’ve never had them support me.”


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Angela McCain, I Am Definition

The final question in the focus group was, “What do you wish was available to you when you started your business?” The design of this question was twofold: first, to gather any additional insight into the participant’s startup experience, and second, to gather recommendations on what black women owners said was needed in their community to help other black women start and grow businesses. Participants said they wished for or would recommend four things be available for black women startups: access to general and specific business knowledge, mentoring, peer engagement and financial resources.

General and Specific Business Knowledge

“I think that if there was more information around not just how to write a business plan but rather a step-by-step process. What you need to do before you even apply for your business license? Do you have your financing in place? Do you have your investors? Just some step by step, technical assistance before you even think about your business plan … would be helpful.” 

Mentoring

“Not having a mentor, not having someone, that would step-by-step hand-hold me in that early process was a struggle.“ 

Peer Engagement

“I would like more examples of women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses that are readily accessible to talk to. To sit here among you all, this is the best thing I’ve done all week. I know that you all understand and have walked in my shoes. I needed more of this.”

Finances

“The other thing of course is just finances and resources. Being able to figure out how your finances look and scale down your life so that way you can invest everything into your business, because truly you believe in yourself.”

Participants were not asked specifically about race or gender, however, significant comments about race and gender emerged throughout the conversations. Most comments were related to the combination of race and gender, meaning most participants discussed their experience of being black and a woman, not one or the other. The second-most comments on race were about community and the challenges they saw operating within the black community.    

Race and Gender

“They’re used to Caucasians or other cultures running businesses. It was just foreign to people. When they see us coming. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re the owner?’ ”  

“I’m having a problem now. My audience probably thinks that my product is just for blacks, but it’s not. It’s just a mixture of a lot of things.”

“ … and (nonblack potential clients) see two African-American ladies walk up, and they think, ‘Oh it’s a black business’ … . They think we just take pictures of black women. So we had to make a choice to just go with it and get the low-hanging fruit (black clients). If other people don’t want to patronize us then that’s what it’s going to be until they figure out that the camera works on other people too.”

Race and Community

Lack of Information Sharing and Competition

“I think that we’re conditioned to compete versus working together. People literally have come into my store on more than one occasion like, ‘How’s the store across the hall, how’s the competition?’ I’m like, ‘We’re not competition. That’s my friend.’ … You know, Walgreens and Costcos are right across the street. This bank is next to this bank. There is enough room for all of us to succeed, but I don’t think that we’re conditioned to think that. I see a lot of challenges with that.”

Support

“ … but when I tried to go out into my community of people who look like me, they wanted me for free. They did not want to support me. I could not get anything to turn around so I started branching out. It wasn’t until I started branching out and getting business elsewhere that they decided to say, ‘Hmm, maybe we should give you a try.’  Why did it take that? Why didn’t you support me in the very beginning?”

Like race and gender, the subject of religious faith and belief was interwoven throughout the focus group conversations. This is consistent with a 2009 Pew Research report, which found that: 

African-American women also stand out for their high level of religious commitment. More than eight of 10 black women (84 percent) say religion is very important to them, and roughly six of 10 (59 percent) say they attend religious services at least once a week. No group of men or women from any other racial or ethnic background exhibits comparably high levels of religious observance.

Many of the participants said they used faith as a motivation to start, as a source of resilience, as a framework for interpreting life and business experiences. In addition, many used their faith institution as part of their business support network.    

“Then when God continued to take me out of corporate, I kind of figured He has a plan for you and I have to go to that calling.”

“Everything just kind of hit me at once and I found myself at a place where I didn’t really know who I was. I just prayed and thought I needed a purpose and I needed to find out who am I.”

“Church was my support. I was pregnant with my last son. When I left my other church I heard about empowering the kingdom with your gift. My gift is just working with people.”

“But besides my mom, I had the community. The community has been extremely good to me. I was actually in a white church when I started my business and that church poured so much into me. It was incredible. They literally paid me to do ministry. In our churches, you know, it’s volunteer. This particular church, my gift of course is cooking and serving, so I got paid.”

Black women are motivated by both push and pull factors prior to starting their businesses. Negative experiences in the workplace and a passion for the industry in which they start their businesses are two of the largest motivators. Two of the biggest challenges black women said they faced were a lack of general business information and a lack of mentoring when they started their business. The primary support most black women said they received at startup came from family and friends, but many also said there was a lack of support as they were starting their business. Many also shared that they were treated or perceived negatively as a business owner because of race and gender. Black women said belief and faith are important to their business experience, adding that faith serves as a motivator and also helps with resiliency in challenging times.

“Research has shown that when women gain more wealth, it raises up the entire family. The median  income for households headed by women with a microbusiness owner or employee is significantly higher than similar households that do not have the microbusiness involvement. In addition, the children of  families with self-employed parents perform better academically, attending college in higher percentages. That means we need to do more to support black women business owners, immediately, because when we support them we support black families, the communities they live in, and the regional economy and national economy overall."

-Connie Evans, President and CEO, Association for Enterprise Opportunity