Black women business owners in St. Louis are thriving during the pandemic

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At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Ronda Walker worked as the director of nursing at a St. Louis-area nursing home. Walker quickly began to plan her exit strategy, as she could not cope with clients dying and nursing staff falling seriously ill. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the day she suffered a stroke in early summer 2020.

While recovering, the North St. Louis County native spent time wondering what she would do next. In November 2020, Walker purchased a building in the Grove neighborhood she now calls Creole with a touch of soul restaurant.

But opening a Creole-South restaurant in times of health crisis and economic downturn has not been easy. Walker was unable to obtain bank financing.

“I was told the restaurant industry was pretty much devastated…especially with the COVID pandemic and all the closings, so it just wasn’t much to get,” Walker said.

Walker used about $30,000 of his personal savings and about $10,000 in family loans to start his business.

For many Black entrepreneurs, acquiring capital from lenders or private investors is their biggest obstacle to running a successful business. This made it harder for black business owners to keep their doors open.

Brian Munoz

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St. Louis Public Radio

Some of Ronda Walker’s signature dishes include fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and fried catfish.

According to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the number of black-owned businesses has increase by about 30% nationwide since before the pandemic — and black women are driving that growth.

Some days Creole with a Splash of Soul sees a heavy flow of traffic, and other days business is light. To make sure the doors are kept open and his employees are paid, Walker sometimes takes nursing shifts.

“Every dollar I made as a nurse I put back into my business,” Walker said.

Walker has been serving Creole Shrimp and Creamy Grits, Seasoned Fried Catfish and Cajun Chicken Pasta since May 2021. The business has grossed around $270,000 in seven months.

Black women are often the heads of households, and they give up working in industries where they earn less than their counterparts to run their own businesses, said Gisele Marcus, professor of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University. from Washington to St. Louis.

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Andrea Y.Henderson

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St. Louis Public Radio

Rachel Burns opened her ice cream company Bold Spoons Creamery in May 2020. She originally planned to sell specialty ice cream to restaurants, but scrapped that idea and set up an online store and sold her treats to Tower Grove Farmers Market. Now she makes ice cream at her 57-acre farm and creamery in Park Hills, Missouri.

“COVID kind of shed light on the fact that there are other options, and entrepreneurship is one of them,” Marcus said.

In St. Louis, some black women entrepreneurs started making goods as a hobby before the pandemic and once many businesses closed, they started their own business.

Rachel Burns took her hobby to the next level in May 2020 by opening Bold Spoons Creamery.

In 2017, Saint-Louisienne started making ice cream for her friends at gatherings. Since her guests enjoyed the sweet dessert, she began to perfect her recipes. In early March 2020, people couldn’t go out to buy ice cream, so Burns saw an opportunity to go directly to customers. Burns began handing out ice cream to neighbors to inform them of his new venture.

“I would just say ‘Hi, my name is Rachel, I live down the street around the corner and I just started this business and wanted to give you a little treat, hope you like it'” , Burns said. “And later that day I started getting online orders.”

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Andrea Y.Henderson

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St. Louis Public Radio

Rachel Burns, left, and her assistant make mint ice cream at her Park Hills creamery.

In the beginning, she bulk-produced mint, goat cheese, and fig-lavender ice cream in a commercial kitchen in downtown St. Louis to sell online and at the Tower Grove Farmers Market. And in July 2020, her ice cream was picked up by Schnucks Markets to support black-owned businesses in the area. Its products are now sold in more than 20 local markets and stores.

The financial investment consultant credits the pandemic for her success. Last year, the company made about four times the sales made in the first seven months of its opening.

“We never had a business when COVID wasn’t part of our normal operation, so it would have been interesting to see what it might have been like without it,” Burns said. “But maybe the fact that everyone was home at the time, that’s probably what made that [the business] possible.”

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Andrea Y.Henderson

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St. Louis Public Radio

Tiffany Wesley opened a Pure Vibes store and store in University City in June 2021. She says entrepreneurship isn’t easy and hopes her daughter will be inspired by her work ethic and one day own her own business.

Resident of Florissant and entrepreneur, Tiffany Wesley has also experienced success during the pandemic. She created facial soaps to treat her breakouts from hormonal imbalance and body creams to help soothe her daughter’s skin while dealing with eczema.

“It was a hobby for me, something I loved, a passion,” Wesley said. “My daughter really spurred me on and threw me into it, so I was like, ‘If this helps her, surely it will help others’.”

A few years later, she started making body butters, oils and cleansers in her basement, then opened pure vibes online, but it didn’t see much growth until March 2020.

“It just felt like perfect timing,” Wesley said. “We were in a pandemic, soap was in short supply, sanitizer was in short supply, you couldn’t find anything in terms of just basic sanitation and health and hygiene products,” Wesley said.

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Andrea Y.Henderson

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St. Louis Public Radio

Tiffany Wesley has some of its best-selling products, body bars. They are infused with pink clay, charcoal, coconut and tea tree oil and peppermint.

In 2019 his company made about $35,000 in sales and in 2020 almost $85,000. In 2021, she opened a storefront and spa in University City and plans to open a second location.

As an entrepreneur, Wesley is booming. However, she encountered some obstacles in the beginning. Wesley said that even with good credit, she couldn’t get a bank loan with a decent interest rate. She ended up applying for grants and loans from community investors and she received about $100,000.

Despite the challenges, Wesley said she sees her business as a way to inspire a generation of black female entrepreneurs in St. Louis.

“Being able to see people who look like you, come from similar backgrounds to you and be able to transform communities, especially when you grow up in areas that don’t have a lot of resources, it shows others that you really can. do,” Wesley said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

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