Working for racial equity in your small business

Like any business owner who knows deeply that Black Lives Matter, I’ve spent the past several months thinking about how I can ensure that the organization I’m building is anti-racist. For small business owners, the challenges appear first: limited resources. When you’re bootstrapping, you’re always tight on time and money. When you’re scaling, you’re putting pressure on yourself to properly manage your margins. Like most entrepreneurs, you might avoid looking at problems that you know will be slow to solve or that you’ll never fix. You don’t even know where to start, and then the time issue creeps in, and you keep plugging away with your head down. 

I get that, so the biggest commitment we made in June 2020 was that we were going to slow roll and buckle up for the long haul because this work will never be finished. 

We needed to sit in it before we could get to work. 

We needed to know that this project will never end and never be good enough, and get to it anyway. 

I’m beginning to see unique opportunities for the small business owner, and I want to share them with you. 

What we’ve been up to.

  • We’re showing up to protest. These experiencesspecifically, listening to Black voices and stories from our direct communityhave been mission critical to our understanding of the real state-of-things and our problematic role within the system. There’s no sugarcoating for White folks in these spaces, and you see firsthand how the media misrepresents the message and whitewashes the meaning when they report on these events. You realize you’d have no other way of gaining the context that these events provide. To date, for all protests in Vermont (even a packed one I went to last night), 6-ft is easily maintained and everyone’s wearing masks. I know this varies by state but if you truly want to find a starting place, show up.
  • We participated in a series with other small business owners in Vermont, presented by At The Root VT, in collaboration with Tanaisha Coleman. In a safe space over Zoom, we were given lessons and prompts for open conversation to frankly reflect on our own experiences with White Supremacy. A huge moment for me was when someone said “I always thought, living in Vermont, I didn’t really have much of a culturethat culture was reserved for Europeans or even Black folks. And now I realize that I do have a culture, and that culture is White Supremacy.” Sitting in this series was key to helping me realize I wasn’t even scratching at scratching the surface, and when it comes to what I want to do with my organization, I’m unqualified to do this work alone. This is a critical thing I want to pass on to youmore to come. 
  • Since June, we’ve donated 14% of our monthly profits to our local chapter of Black Lives Matter, community bail funds, Campaign Zero, and Rachel Cargle. We now have a line item in our P&L that we’ll hopefully grow over timewe’ll use it both for donations and for investing in the work we need to do in order to make our business an acceptable and welcoming place for BIPOC to work. More on this in a second, but if you are someone who has said “we really want to figure out how to increase our diversity/inclusion/equity” and you’re skipping straight to the recruiting part, you’re doing it wrong. 

Takeaways for you to walk with:

  • A huge lesson for me has been about the major pitfall of most white corporations that we think of as “better for the world,” B Corps included: These brands create task forces to increase diversity and inclusion, meanwhile, doing none of the work it takes to ensure that when Black employees arrive, they feel safe, with mentorship opportunities, and with space to excel as themselves. This leads to micro aggressions abound and low retention. Brands expect these same Black employees to tell them what they, as a company, should do betterpushing all of the burden to these employees, instead of having invested in resources to do the work themselves prior to their recruiting efforts.  
  • KW Content is engaging a racial equity consultant to help us with long term, strategic planning. First, she’ll administer an anonymous cultural assessment so I can get a real sense of where my team members are at and what work we need to do before we begin to discuss next steps. It’s important to note that I have a team of women who all appear to be aligned, but taking that for granted would be a mistake. Assessing our internal attitudes and beliefs will indicate how much work needs to be done before we are suitable to welcome BIPOC talent. 
  • Being anti-racist isn’t supposed to be convenient for you. If you’re not giving something up, you’re not even close to trying. 

Small businesses today can take incremental steps with the long term in mind, and avoid massive amounts of opportunity cost that comes from the deferment of this effort until you’re a larger organization. 

Internally, putting checks in place that truly nurture an anti-racist culture is a more manageable task when you’re dealing with a smaller organization. What I’m trying to say to those that are concerned about time and money is that you can actually work to create this culture, efficiently, if you start now. 

Consumer-facing, big companies toil over making this a political issue, rather than a moral one, and fear deeply about alienating a subset of their consumer base. This is the most golden nugget of all for the small business owner: By taking measures right nowstanding up and speaking out about your beliefs and valuesyou have the opportunity to build a customer base that aligns with your values. Go forward and create something meaningful with the folks who truly deserve your service, that you truly want to be there for, and who want to be a part of what you’re building.

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