Black-owned businesses are generating billions of pounds for the UK economy and are vital to helping Britain recover following the pandemic.
Companies owned by people of African and Caribbean origin generate more than £10billion for the UK each year, according to the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME).
But a new report by the British Business Bank has found that black business owners are still facing “persistent disparities” compared to white counterparts, with “systemic disadvantage” at the root.
BusinessLive and its parent company Reach Plc are running a campaign to highlight the contribution and importance of black-owned businesses to the UK’s success – now and in the future.
In October, #IAMBOB was launched across Reach’s news titles, with the company retweeting hundreds of black-owned businesses to thousands of followers.
The campaign is part of the work BusinessLive and Reach Plc are doing to represent all the communities they serve – and shine a spotlight on the success stories of flourishing black-owned businesses.
BusinessLive spoke to six black business owners under 35, who talked to us about the challenges they have faced, the advice they would give to other aspiring entrepreneurs, and the secrets to their success.
Kalkidan Legesse, 28
Sancho’s in Fore Street, Exeter, was founded by Kalkidan Legesse and Vidmantas Markevicius in 2012. The pair opened their first pop up store on South Street in 2014, later moving to the shop they have today.
The store specialises in sustainable fashion and since the pandemic is predominantly an ecommerce business, finding customers all over the globe.
The name originates from Kalkidan’s childhood nickname, ‘Sancho’, given by her Ethiopian family.
The daughter of immigrant parents, Kalkidan says her business philosophy is borne of knowing that poverty is never far away and from first hand experience of the effects of the fast fashion industry, from low wages, mass dumping to social disruption and environmental destruction.
Growing up marginalised in the UK, Kalkidan describes how from the ages of 12-21 she would straighten her Afro hair in an attempt to fit in with her peers.
“I was told that having Afro hair looks unprofessional and it wasn’t until I did my MBA that I had a range of teachers who were black. Black was never the lesson and I realised how hard it had been growing up with no frame of reference.”
She explained how being a black woman in business had helped her become her own best advocate and that businesses operated by black women and other marginalised groups “naturally lift up” those below them economically.
She said: “Through the black owned business movement I have met so many wonderful people, women in particular, who are creators, who have stories to tell and dances to share and I have realised that those situations in my life that I have found to be uncomfortable, they have also found uncomfortable and that is incredibly validating.”
And there is plenty of work yet to do, she said. “A friend of mine once asked my mum if she was proud of me, but immigrant parents have high expectations.
She said to my friend: “I thought Kalkidan was going to be Prime Minister.”
Timothy Armoo, 25
Timothy Armoo is the 25-year-old chief executive and co-founder of Fanbytes, an influencer marketing agency that uses social media to help brands connect with new audiences.
He set up his company, which is based in Old Street in London, in 2015 while studying at university. It now employs more than 30 people.
Concerned by brands playing lip service without making any real change, Timothy’s business decided to start financing free marketing campaigns, worth £100,000, to budding black-owned businesses to help them ‘level up’ and kickstart the next generation of black business leaders.
Timothy is also behind the UK’s first TikTok influencer house – called Bytehouse – where a group of young people live together and create content for more than 18 million fans.
The biggest lesson on his business journey, Timothy said, was realising he wasn’t going to know everything.
“That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with mentors and books and teachers who can help you to shortcut the learning process,” he said.
His advice to other young aspiring black entrepreneurs is to remain “objective”.
“There were no investors or clients who I said: ‘They didn’t pick us because we’re black or they didn’t work with us because we are black’ and I think it’s because we always kept it about the product.”
Timothy says there is “no real secret” to success, it’s about about understanding that “input equals output”.
He added: “All I have to do is learn the input and the output will flow and that actually enables me to then be very strategic and tactical about what I’m trying to do.”
Melissa Lewis, 29
Melissa Lewis founded her property company – ML Property Venture – in 2019 after working for an online estate agent franchise.
The Essex-based company finds properties and developments for investors, and offers property services such as inventories, inspections and viewings.
Melissa said she started her business because she wanted to “create an opportunity” for herself.
She said: “I wanted to build my life and career ‘my way’ as opposed to just being an employee forever.”
The biggest challenge she has faced since setting up the business, she said, was changing her mindset from “I can’t do this” to “this is just another hurdle that I will overcome”.
“You’re so focused on the actual business, that it takes a while to realise you need to do everything, including marketing, admin and accounts.
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“I suddenly started to doubt myself at the beginning and feel like I didn’t know what I was doing, but I soon learned to change my mindset to see every obstacle as an opportunity.”
Melissa’s advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is to be prepared for the difficult days.
“On days where people doubt you or you doubt yourself, you need to keep going. Watch motivational videos, read books and bear in mind that if you believe in your idea and you keep pushing forward, you will be successful.”
She added: “No matter how difficult it sometimes feels or how impossible a challenge is, I refuse to give up.”
Melissa is currently working towards expanding the team and hopes to take on two staff members next year.
Lee Chambers, 34
After Lee Chambers lost the ability to walk due to an illness in 2014 he decided to do something to positively impact the health and happiness of people working in the UK.
During his recovery, he started thinking about how he could help SMEs boost employee wellbeing.
At the time he was running a gaming retail business – PhenomGames – which he set up during the economic crisis of 2008 and sold earlier this year to Danish Conglomerate Dangaard.
In 2019, Lee launched Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing – a Bolton and Preston-based business that designs wellbeing strategies for SMEs. He now employs two people and has six associates working for the business.
“I have had some significant challenges in my life so far, including mental health struggles at university, redundancy from my graduate scheme and losing the ability to walk,” he said.
“The biggest challenge I faced since launching Essentialise a year ago was moving into a completely different industry, with a little local network, a lack of industrial capital and a very different market and target audience. This felt daunting, especially as a young black male in wellbeing.”
Lee overcame the challenges, he says, by starting out as if he was “a beginner”.
“I decided not to take any previous business success for granted. I opened up to mentoring and started to learn from those who had been on the journey.”
Last week, Lee was named among the UK’s top 50 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) entrepreneurs Under 50.
But he said the proudest moment in his career was giving frontline staff at two NHS trusts free coaching over lockdown.
“Being able to give something back to those who helped me to learn to walk again was incredibly rewarding,” he recalled.
His advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is to do something they enjoy, are good at and can bring value to.
“There will undoubtedly be obstacles along the way, but don’t let a lack of diversity or inclusion hold you back if you want to go and disrupt an industry.
“We must have black entrepreneurs founding businesses across the whole industrial landscape, showing the next generation that it is also possible for them.”
He added: “Have the courage to step forward and make things happen, and don’t fear failure; if you do fail, you will have plenty to learn from.”
Gerald Manu, 22
Gerald Manu started his entrepreneurial journey in 2013 when he was just 15.
He was at secondary school in Croydon, South London, when he began selling crisps and drinks to friends, which, he said, is “where the dream started”.
“I was selling snacks to my classmates and I started thinking, ‘what can I do that can bring value?’
“I was really creative and loved fashion, so I designed a t-shirt, got it printed for £10, using the money I had made from the crisps, and sold it for £20. That’s when Devacci started.”
But it was while at De Montfort University, while studying business and marketing, Gerald realised he could be “onto something big” and he started approaching retailers.
“It cost me nothing to approach big retailers. The worse that could happen was they would say no. But I had courage and confidence in my brand.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and Devacci is now a wearable technology fashion brand and is stocked in TK Maxx stores across the UK.
“It felt like a dream being accepted by TK Maxx – and for such a massive retailer to give us a chance. I had emailed them and I attached some designs, then waited until they contacted me.”
Hannah Baker is BusinessLive’s South West Editor. She is based in Bristol but covers the entire region, as well as stories across the wider South of England.
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Hannah has nearly a decade’s experience reporting on the business scene in the UK.
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When Gerald started out he had no networks and spent a lot of time making cold calls, he said, building his business up from scratch.
“There were so many rejections; I would send 100 emails a day. It is a state of mind. If one person rejected me I would ask for feedback and then learn from that, so I could come back better and remodel again.
“Motivation comes and goes but discipline is what overcomes that. I had to look at the bigger picture and just go out and do it.”
Looking to the future, Gerald says he wants his business to have a social purpose. He is planning to set up a charity for people starting out in business who don’t have help, mentors or investment, especially in South London.
Joyann Boyce, 29
When a career recruitment didn’t align with her values, Joyann Boyce decided to set up a company helping small businesses and charities grow using social media.
She founded The Social Detail in 2017 after taking part in an enterprise course run by the Prince’s Trust in Bristol and now employs a team of five.
Joy – as she likes to be known – said the everyday running of a business was a “real learning curve” for her.
“There are a lot of unspoken rules that you can only learn from doing, getting it wrong, adapting and trying again,” she said.
But she has also faced barriers to the business world, which she believes are to do with her gender and race.
“When I walk into a networking event I am often either the only woman or the only person of colour, unless the event is about BAME people. People question my knowledge,” she said. “I get asked questions that other people don’t.”
Her advice to other young entrepreneurs is to find a mentor, build a network and to understand that sometimes the things others use to try to hold you back can be your best asset.
“Learn from your mentor’s mistakes as well as their successes. Build a network! The cliche is true; it is all about who you know, but it does take work to build those connections.”
Joy, who was involved in the NatWest accelerator hub in Bristol, says her ambition is to change the face of marketing and make inclusive marketing the industry standard.
And the secret to her success? “Probably learning from my mistakes. They happen a lot more often in terms of running a business than people care to admit.
“I’d also say that I’ve had great mentors along the way. Being able to turn to a mentor for advice or inspiration has been invaluable for me and the growth of my company.”