In Conversation With… Nadine Spencer, President and CEO, Black Business and Professional Association
Nadine, you’ve told us about the challenges Black businesses have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Did a lot of Black businesses go bankrupt?
Absolutely. But the bigger challenge has been mental health.
I run a program called the Boss Women Entrepreneurship Training Program for Black women entrepreneurs. In week two of the program, we were hacked by racists during one of our virtual sessions. They came on with a Nazi sign in the background and called us cotton-picking [n-words], saying we should die like George Floyd. We hung up the call, but they came back on and body-shamed the women in the meeting and verbally abused them. I think it’s the most horrific experience I’ve had in terms of both racism and sexism. It was horrible.
Nonetheless, we continued the class, and those women logged on every single day. One of the women created a set of candles because she recognized that Black women entrepreneurs were probably going to suffer the most during COVID-19, and she wanted to make something that would help them feel inspired and believe that they could go on.
We’ve had entrepreneurs who have committed suicide during COVID-19 because their businesses are gone and they have families they can’t feed. And not all landlords have been kind to Black entrepreneurs during the pandemic. So some of these entrepreneurs couldn’t take it, and they killed themselves.
How do you counteract that?
By having conversations, working with businesses one-on-one, and finding out what their needs are.
Sometimes it’s simple. Once it was as simple as sending someone a pie. That treat—that personal touch that says someone is thinking of you during this difficult time—is important.
How can Black businesses that have survived COVID-19 recover from the pandemic?
We have to be hopeful, and we need to take a one-on-one approach. I did coaching sessions with the Boss Women for 30 minutes each, one on one. The resources that we have from organizations like HSBC allow us to meet entrepreneurs online to talk about their needs and see how we can set them up for success.
These entrepreneurs are not going back to school—they’re too busy figuring out how to run their barbershops or restaurants or clothing stores. We work with them, educate them, train them, and prepare them for future crises. We’ve worked with some businesses to help them get the CEBA loans. And the federal government has launched the Black Entrepreneurship Program, so we’re working within that ecosystem to make sure they have the resources they need.
What do financial institutions need to do better?
We need banks to see us—to really see us. I have my own successful business, but I cannot go to the bank in my Lululemons. I have to be dressed up when I go to the bank, every single time, or they won’t take me seriously.
What we want is for banks to understand that we’re entrepreneurs and we have talents and experience, regardless of what we look like. See us, talk to us, and listen to our business challenges so we can find a way together to work on a solution. Financial institutions are supposed to be there to help us build and grow—so let’s start growing!
We want to encourage the banking community to look at the character of Black businesses. Beacon Scores, which are a measure of credit-worthiness, are important, but when you’re a Black business your Beacon Score isn’t always going to be the best. Financial institutions need to see the human perspective while simultaneously building on the business perspective.
What is your advice for young, would-be entrepreneurs who have an idea and don’t know how to proceed?
That it’s possible. If I can do it, you can do it, so be confident. Formalize your business. Don’t take it for granted that you’re going to walk into the bank with a great idea but nothing written down and just make it happen. You need to have a formal plan. That way, somebody can look at it and commit to it, or commit to helping you through it.
What do you tell Black entrepreneurs who are frustrated and struggling?
Don’t give up. Find people who can help you on your path. We all face challenges, like when I was 12 and my mother moved to Canada. But through all of that, I always had my eye on what was possible for my future. If you believe in your idea, stick with it and keep your eye on the future.