African American History Month is an annual observance created in an effort to ensure that African-American contributions to both society and history will remain part of the mainstream curriculum. Every February, we reflect in the struggles, achievements and contributions that this community has made and recognize the advancements and innovations that have shaped American lives.
This year’s theme, "At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington” give us a glimpse into the struggle for social and economic justice faced by African Americans. The SBA is proud to celebrate those who have attained economic freedom through entrepreneurship. African American small business owners are one of the fastest growing segments of our economy and are creating jobs and opportunity for all Americans. Here are just a few of the many stories that beautifully illustrate the intersection of struggle and success.
When Don Lofton of Adrian, MI first started in a business training program conducted by the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center, he was the sole owner of Adrian Taxi, a ten year old business in a small town near the Ohio border. The FastTrac curriculum helped Lofton create a strategic plan for the next five years of business, and his business consultants at the SBA funded SBTDC are helping him put together a loan package to expand the business. Lofton has faced many obstacles on his road to business success. He raised four hard working, family oriented sons as a single dad. He faced many challenges as a successful African American business owner in a community that is 94% Caucasian. And just this past December, Don and his partner Kara, had a baby boy who was born prematurely, barely weighing three pounds. The baby has had several severe complications, but as the devoted father he is, Don juggles his time between his business and the hospital. Around this time, Lofton also learned that he needed to find a new location for his business when his landlord ended his lease. When asked how he keeps it together, Lofton said, “God doesn’t give me more than I can handle.” Don’s business is growing substantially and he’s on track to break a million in sales in 2013. Just as his predecessors before him, Lofton has reached a crossroad and has chosen the path of economic freedom.
The path to freedom wasn’t always easy for Christopher Watson, a 48 year old artist from Flint, MI. Watson did what a typical Michigan high graduate did in the late 1960’s – he went to work in the local auto plant while attending college. He first started drawing as a child and knew then that his passion was art. Also a graduate of the SBTDC sponsored FastTrac business training class, Watson has worked hard at making a living as an artist. His SBA funded business consultant calls him “one of the spark plugs in the class.” But the training program helped Watson discover that he had an unrealistic plan and was running in too many directions at once. He regrouped, scaled back, and created a legitimate business plan. By focusing on his plan and identifying his unique market segment, Watson started gaining recognition in the Flint art community. Today, he’s building on his diverse talent, including graphic design, portraiture, and murals. The Mott Foundation has commissioned him to produce several murals in the community – a community where he once had to go looking for funding. Recently, Watson was astounded that over a hundred people showed up for a reception leading up to his art exhibit in Flint. With features in the local paper and invitations to create more designs, Watson has kept his dream of becoming a bona fide artist alive. Passion to profits - one artwork at a time.
Belinda and Walter Jefferson are part of prestigious group of 242,900 women owned businesses in Michigan. Impressively, Walter is the Chief Financial Officer and Belinda serves as President of Hercules & Hercules, one of the Great Lakes Region’s major janitorial and sanitation suppliers. Even more impressive is the fact that the company was established as a custodial services business by African Americans Hercules Jefferson Sr. and Hercules Jefferson Jr. in 1964. Before the March on Washington, before the Civil Rights Amendment, and before African Americans were fully accepted into the mainstream of the American economy, this father and son team created their own opportunity and their own legacy. With hard work, dedication to quality, superior service, and investing in technology, Hercules & Hercules is a successful minority owned business with a 60,000 square foot warehouse, a demonstration and training center, and a business office complex located in Detroit, Michigan, with branches in Cleveland, Ohio and Durham, North Carolina. The business continues to be 100% family owned and run by the mother/daughter team of Walter and Belinda, with Hercules Sr. serving as CEO.
In 2012, Jefferson enrolled in the prestigious SBA sponsored Emerging Leaders program, an intensive training initiative to accelerate growth of high potential small businesses located in America’s inner cities. Jefferson said, “Participation in the Emerging 200 course to develop a strategic plan and further develop our marketing plan has set the stage for further growth.” Jefferson is committed to keeping the legacy of her father and brother alive – a legacy created when crossroads to justice did not exist for all.
One might say that Jeffery and Cassandra Thomas’ story all started with one sweet potato cookie. Cassandra developed a sweet potato cookie recipe, conducted a bit of test marketing, and suddenly, a company was created. Thomas and her husband began their home-based business in 1987 in Detroit and slowly grew the business to the point of graduating to a small storefront, and finally settling in their current location. Their move was strategic and deliberate – they could have moved anywhere, but this husband and wife team is committed to the City of Detroit and in particular, to their neighborhood known as ‘Old Redford’.
Running a business in Old Redford can be challenging. The two have had to overcome crime and the perception that their beloved community was unsafe. Like many African American small business before them, this couple are committed to providing an economic opportunity for the next generation of Detroiters. To do so, they needed help in ensuring a viable future for Sweet Potato Sensations. Fortunately, the help came in the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program, where they learned how to maximize their assets – a full service kitchen, café, and ice cream parlor – in order to increase profitability. Their ever increasing product line that includes sweet potato cookies, cheesecake, pie, candied yams, cobber, and recently added cupcakes and a variety of fruit pies is sold in retail and wholesale markets. The company also received an SBA microloan to help fund future growth and continue the legacy of African American business ownership in Detroit. The future indeed looks sweet for Cassandra and Jeffrey Thomas.
These accomplished and courageous entrepreneurs have created opportunities for themselves and their families while enriching our community at large. The journey may have been long, the path uncertain, but the goal of economic freedom remains. Rosa Parks once said, “I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” The SBA commemorates African American business owners who continue to make history every day.