Breaking New Ground

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We appear to be in a golden age of African-American small business development.  The number of black businesses is rising sharply-more than 46% in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s-and the sophistication of the efforts is accelerating as well.  In the past, it was common to see firms launched with little more than a good idea, a tiny amount of capital, and a double helping of prayer.

Today, we are much more likely to see African-American companies started by experienced managers who have already learned many of the toughest lessons of business, like managing staff, creating a realistic business plan, and staying on top of expenses.

Two newly formed home-based African-American businesses show the kinds of thoughtfulness, creativity and courage going into some of the new businesses.
Allen-Barcelona Development Corporation (212-234-2429) is a construction and property development company based in East Harlem that renovates residential and commercial properties.  In its first year, the company has racked up more than $100,000 in billings, including a contract with Harlem’s Hale House agency to start converting an abandoned building into usable space for the care of orphaned children.

Allen-Barcelona is owned and run by Lizzette Hill Barcelona, who formerly directed the East Harlem Neighborhood-Based Alliance, a nonprofit social services agency that she founded.  Why start a construction company?  “I decided to go into something that was not traditionally open to women, and then do it from a different perspective,” says Barcelona.  “All my clients say it’s different dealing with a woman contractor.”

That’s putting it mildly.  Anyone who’s ever hired a company to renovate their home knows that contractors have a maddening habit of showing up late for meetings and underestimating the time it takes to finish projects.  Not Barcelona.  “I take deadlines seriously,” says the 36-year-old single mother.  “When you have a two-year-old waiting for you at the baby sitter, every minute counts.”
Although she has a master’s degree in planning from Pratt Institute, Barcelona attributes her early success to what she learned by running a nonprofit agency with 14 employees and a $1 million budget. “In a nonprofit, you’re constantly tracking the cost of everything to make sure you don’t overspend your grants,” she says. “That’s the same theory behind a home business-you have to control the expenses or they will control you.”

With a staff of two and about 15 construction workers on call, Barcelona’s next step is to acquire properties and construct new facilities. “Right now I’m a home improvement contractor,” she says.  “I want to acquire property and build on it.  That’s why we’re called a development company.”

Bold Footwear (718-623-0333) is a Georgia-based athletic footwear and apparel company with a northeast distribution arm based in Brooklyn.  In September, the firm’s shoes will be sold through nine New York area Footlocker/Sports Authority stores-part of a national rollout that includes Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta and the Carolinas.
The notion behind Bold is simple, says Bilal Muhammad, the northeast distribution manager.  “I pay easily between $80 and $110 a shot for my children’s footwear,” says the father of five.  “It’s $100 plus for the Michael Jordans.  Do the math.”

According to Muhammad, the math adds up to a $12 billion global market for athletic footwear, and huge profits for the large sneaker companies.  Keds sells $180 million worth of shoes without any marketing, says Muhammad, while a marketing machine like Nike earns billions every year.  “Our footwear is designed, created and marketed by African-Americans; that’s totally unique in the market,” says Muhammad.  “We understand and know the needs and wants of the inner-city consumer, which really drives the market.  We know them because we are them.”
Bold’s founder and CEO, Tariq Khan, learned the ropes the hard way-a 1986 attempt to launch Bold resulted in more orders than the young company could handle, and the effort collapsed.  Undeterred, Khan staged a 10-year comeback, handling marketing for a Korean sneaker company and honing his skills by marketing well-known brands like Puma and Converse.

By the time he was ready to re-launch Bold this year, Khan had a stronger business plan, a national distribution network of savvy local entrepreneurs like Muhammad, and a celebrity endorsement from a well-known hip hop artist, Da Brat.

“We want our folks to come out and support Bold,” says Muhammad.  “We have a quality product that they will be proud to wear, with unique designs and color combinations.  If it wasn’t a quality product, it wouldn’t be in Footlocker right now.”

Where the Jobs Are
A small nonprofit community group in Bedford-Stuyvesant has quietly stepped up to the challenge of helping people get jobs. The Central Brooklyn Neighborhood Employment Center (718-573-9197) is a one-stop source of training and job placement for community residents.  In just over three years, CBNEC has placed more than 200 people in jobs, including public assistance recipients.

CBNEC’s approach is different from most job agencies, according to the agency’s Executive Director, Jeffrey E, Dunston.  For one thing, all job seekers are tested and helped in creating a resume.  Next, CBNEC staff look through want ads, and send resumes out for job seekers.

The agency also attempt helps people solve any problems that might stand in the way of employment.  Job seekers with misdemeanor jail records, for example, may be referred to lawyers who can help them seal their records.  Clients with drug or alcohol problems are referred to detox programs.

All of this is free for clients, and walk-ins are accepted.  The storefront office is at 796A Putnam Avenue, between Malcolm X Blvd. and Stuyvesant Ave.
By Errol T. Louis