Black business owners question whether they have equal shot at success in NH

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New Hampshire wasn’t what Courtney Daniel expected.

A transplant from Atlanta, Daniel settled in Portsmouth with her family in 2012. After the move, she decided to start her own custom stationery design business, the Courtney Daniel Brand.

But gaining a foothold in her local community was more difficult than anticipated, Daniel said. Customers were hard-earned, and word-of-mouth didn’t seem to carry the same weight it did back in Atlanta.

“It became discouraging,” she said.

Courtney Daniel, owner of Courtney Daniels Brand, moved to New Hampshire in 2012 from Atlanta, GA. Courtesy Photo

And it was a battle she fought largely alone, she said. Despite pockets of diversity in the mostly-white Seacoast Region, Daniel said she still felt isolated as a Black business owner. She needed support, but didn’t know where to look.

It took nearly a decade to build a following, Daniel said.

“I’m finally able to get my foot in these circles that could support me,” she said.

Daniel said this experience was fresh in her mind earlier this month when she signed an open letter asking Gov. Chris Sununu to redirect a portion of the state’s coronavirus relief funding toward minority and immigrant communities.

The letter, published July 3 and endorsed by 13 other New Hampshire business owners and community leaders, suggests the state failed to adequately relay information about relief funding to businesses with Black, brown and new American owners.

The letter also points to deep-seated inequalities some say have always been there. The Monitor spoke with five business owners from minority and immigrant communities across New Hampshire about their experiences living and working in a predominantly white state.

Most owners reported feeling isolated from their local markets and overlooked by local and state governments — a disconnect that leads them to question whether they have an equal shot at success compared to their white counterparts.

Manchester-based consultant Deo Mwano, who penned the open letter, said he was alarmed by the number of small businesses that failed to take advantage of pandemic relief funding. Some didn’t apply because they found the paperwork confusing, he said. Others had simply never heard of the relief programs.

Deo Mwano penned an open letter to Gov. Chris Sununu asking him to close the funding gap that leaves minority-owned businesses out of the loop. Courtesy Photo

“It just killed me, because I was like, man, there’s a gap here,” he said.

For many minority-owned businesses, the barrier is economic, Mwano said. They often can’t afford access to interest groups like their local chambers of commerce, which help keep businesses apprised of funding opportunities and other programs. Others may be English-language learners and require extra assistance understanding the resources available to them, he said.

Minorities and new immigrants may also have a harder time gathering the laundry-list of resources needed to start and maintain their businesses, said Elizabeth Salas Evans, president of Weare-based Cayena Capital Management.

Business owners must be prepared to pay out-of-pocket for everything ranging from hardware, like phones and computers, to intangible professional services like financial and legal consulting, she said. To those strapped for cash and with few connections in their communities, these expenses can quickly become overwhelming.

“Those are things that, if other companies have them or they’re willing to even provide their service to help small businesses and start-ups, that’s huge,” she said.

Thelastris Durand, owner of Grounds, a cafe in New London, said she’s experienced this strain first-hand. When the pandemic hit, she said, she had to overhaul her business model in a matter of days. Reopening meant significant adjustments to staffing and scheduling — and building a website so customers could order online.

“It was a nightmare,” she said. “I would not wish to relive that part of 2020, ever.”

It’s too early to tell the scale of the relief gap between white- and minority-owned businesses. While Paycheck Protection Program loan data suggests minority-owned businesses received funding at lower rates than their white counterparts, applicants were not required to report their race, making meaningful comparisons nearly impossible.

The state is already taking measures to adjust how resources are distributed, however. Last week, Sununu announced new initiatives to close the gap — a move made in part in response to Mwano’s open letter, he said.

In the announcement, Sununu pledged $1.5 million from the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) Education Relief Fund, which he said will sponsor up to 800 student scholarships. The state will also funnel additional CARES Act funds to organizations that support Black, brown and new immigrant communities, he said.

The move comes a week after Sununu released a report of initial recommendations from the COVID-19 Equity Response Team, which he convened in May to identify how the virus is disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minorities.

Many of the team’s suggestions echoed those in the open letter. Among other recommendations, the report called on the state to allocate emergency relief toward minority and new immigrant communities, gather more comprehensive demographic data on New Hampshire business owners and do more to advertise funding opportunities.

Robb Curry co-owns Madear’s, a restaurant coming to Pembroke. Photo/Geoff Forester, Monitor staff

Robb Curry, co-owner of Madear’s, a restaurant in Pembroke, said he wonders what else the state could do to get the word out to minority communities. He said he personally didn’t have trouble staying informed about funds — he saw them advertised on Facebook, on state websites and in press conferences.

Curry said in his own experience marketing his restaurant, he’s found there’s only so much that can be done to reach a target audience. For those who don’t keep up with media, it can be an impossible task, he said.

“You’re not going to reach that person,” he said.

Still, things can hardly stay the way they are, Daniel said. She hopes grassroots advocacy like the open letter is moving the state in the right direction.

In the meantime, she offers a word of caution to those who may find themselves in her shoes. For people of color looking to start businesses of their own, success won’t come easy in New Hampshire, she said.

“You’re going to really have to find your community that’s really want to support you,” she said.

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