Getting Down To Business

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Black entrepreneurs need more than a creative approach to get ahead

Perseverance and new perspectives are two of the important strategies needed to give Wilmington’s Black businesses the opportunities they deserve, three local serial entrepreneurs agree.

“We call it the art of the pull-up,” Newdy Felton, partner in Influencers Lab Media (a full-service marketing and media company) says of his years hustling for connections, funding and sales. “We like that adrenaline. We are relentless and never take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Wilmington entrepreneur Jason Aviles says exposure to the right networks is key. Photo: Butch Comegys

“There needs to be more diversity across the board for decision makers,” says Ivan Thomas, founder of DeTv, whose tagline is 200% positive news 100% of the time. “There aren’t too many resources with people of color at the table. People with amazing ideas don’t even get out of the gate.”

“Ironically, (such problems) work to your advantage,” says Jason Aviles, co-founder of multiple initiatives to help other people and businesses grow. “They force you to build this undeniable persistence and commitment to your cause and learn how to adapt and react.”

The three are among the guest editorial committee for this issue of Out & About. With a “Where Do We Go From Here?” theme, Out & About is adding to the nationwide conversation about race.

One recent idea that has earned quick action is the 15-Percent Pledge, with New Yorker Aurora James asking national retailers to commit 15 percent of their shelf space to products from Black-owned businesses, The New York Times reported. The figure represents the country’s Black population. Wilmington is 58 percent Black; New Castle County is 26 percent Black; and Delaware is 23 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Funding Issues

One huge stumbling block is the lack of local banks, foundations and other funders run by people of color, says Thomas, a Delaware native and also owner of BluFilms Media. “I’m so used to it,” he says, sighing. “You dig hard and keep going to be the best you can. A lot of banks wouldn’t even look at our business plans. If they did, they came back with excuses. That’s how it’s been not just for myself but for other people of color, to get off the ground or to expand a successful concept.”

He says a notable exception is True Access Capital. Since 1992, the nonprofit community development financial institution, previously called the First State Community Loan Fund, has focused on underserved populations.

Thomas therefore developed creative strategies to bring in revenue, including T-shirts (the most popular of the all-positive messages just says “Kaepernick”), $99 headshots efficiently organized, and asking for donations from people profiled in DeTv’s “Candidate Check-ins.”

Felton also has encountered a lack of funding for his ventures, including marketing (Influencers Lab Media), and retail (Step It Up Clothing).

“Our influence in the Black community is great and we have the ability to engage a large audience that most companies can’t reach,” says Felton. “That’s such a valuable asset, but at times we feel as though we’re not often offered the same contracts and money that our White counterparts are offered. Our ability to have such an influence isn’t matched in Delaware. We were able to group one of our Facebook groups  to 10,000 in a matter of three weeks.”

For Wilmington to improve, its boards of directors need to become more diverse and its workforces need more diversity training, and both groups need to care enough to change, Aviles says. “Then we can have this mixed pot of goodness, and leverage diversity and culture to succeed in everything.”

He also believes that business leaders need to admit that they are at times vulnerable and need help. “Humility is our biggest strength, and it’s rooted in compassion and competence. Yet we often think that strength is often built on force, but strength is really about grace. It’s difficult to explain that to my teens,” he says of the three dozen at-risk youth he’s employed and mentored so far through Wilmington Green Box. “Your vision means more than your ego. That’s character development.”

“In order for there to be a change, we—the African American community—have to come together, set the stage on a political level, vote with our money and show our influence,” says Felton, a New Jersey native who grew up in Delaware. “That can turn Delaware into a powerhouse of the African American perspective.”

Aviles also feels an obligation to “provide a solid foundation for our youth,” so that they can build on what his generation has developed. And the events of late should go beyond starting the conversation. “We need to develop the action plan.”

Thomas likewise cites being unappreciated (“they applauded the effort but didn’t show any interest”) and underpaid (accepting it because “we have to feed our families”).

“The lack of funding directly comes from the lack of exposure to the networks that we need to be in to be supported,” says Aviles, whose startups include Wilmington Green Box (which brings fresh foods and teen jobs to the city), Artist Ave Station (a co-working space) and Wilmington Placemakers (a nonprofit focused on community culture, engagement and wellness). “We’re getting into the entrepreneurship late in the game, and the funding pool, especially in Delaware, comes from people you know. It’s a very tight-knit community.”

Interest In Inclusiveness

Aviles believes that part of the solution means to appreciate and embrace diversity, and he cites that vibrancy in his native Bronx and in the buzzy metropolises of Seattle and Portland, Oregon, for not just economic growth but also quality of life.

Wilmington Green Box is a welcomed fresh addition to Market Street.

“People with political clout and money don’t even understand the problem,” he says. “They don’t understand inequality and that their privilege is rooted in inequality.”

For Wilmington to improve, its boards of directors need to become more diverse and its workforces need more diversity training, and both groups need to care enough to change, Aviles says. “Then we can have this mixed pot of goodness, and leverage diversity and culture to succeed in everything.”

He also believes that business leaders need to admit that they are at times vulnerable and need help. “Humility is our biggest strength, and it’s rooted in compassion and competence. Yet we often think that strength is often built on force, but strength is really about grace. It’s difficult to explain that to my teens,” he says of the three dozen at-risk youth he’s employed and mentored so far through Wilmington Green Box. “Your vision means more than your ego. That’s character development.”

“In order for there to be a change, we—the African American community—have to come together, set the stage on a political level, vote with our money and show our influence,” says Felton, a New Jersey native who grew up in Delaware. “That can turn Delaware into a powerhouse of the African American perspective.”

Aviles also feels an obligation to “provide a solid foundation for our youth,” so that they can build on what his generation has developed. And the events of late should go beyond starting the conversation. “We need to develop the action plan.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.