Whitney Jones arrived from St. Louis to promote her handmade, plus-size clothing line. Lloyd Henry brought his spread from Big Daddy’s BBQ on the northern side of Columbia to promote his year-round barbecue catering business he runs with his wife, Fontella. Jetawn Smith came from Jefferson City to talk taxes with the community.
Black business owners from across Missouri shook hundreds of hands on Saturday at Columbia College during the 2018 Columbia College Black Business Expo. The expo, the first of its kind to come to the college, showcased 19 businesses representing industries ranging from baked goods to candle making to social justice-themed art. Some 300 people filtered through Dorsey Hall as business owners chatted with new customers and longtime friends alike about their wares.
Micheal Lewis, the assistant director of evening campus admissions at Columbia College, said the gathering was more than a sales event, but aimed to display "the ingenuity and the toughness of African American people.” Lewis hopes to make the expo, hatched by the college's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee last summer, an annual event.
"It didn't take very long for us to realize that a black expo, a showcase of black entrepreneurs, was exactly what we needed," Lewis said.
Each expo booth reflected the range of African American entrepreneurship. Shoppers browsed social justice-themed art from Aundrae Williams at the Easy Yoke Art booth, while across the aisle, others asked questions about tax deadlines at Jetawn Smith's booth, "My Tax Lady."
"I wanted to have someone representing every facet of what a black business would be or should be," Lewis said. "It just came together that we did."
Whitney Jones, a fashion designer from St. Louis, said participating in the expo was an easy choice.
"An expo that showcases black businesses? I couldn't pass that up,” Jones said.
Jones is a Columbia College alumna and designer at Liv and Kiss, a women's apparel company specializing in creating custom garments in sizes 16 to 32. She launched her company in 2016 because she wanted to make the shopping experience more accessible, using the slogan, "empowering women one thread at a time." Along the way, Jones said she has learned lessons that other black business owners at the expo may be familiar with.
"If you fail, fail quickly. Put on your big girl pants and move along," Jones said.
She told shoppers at the expo of her plans to incorporate nonprofit work with her business in the future by hand-making garments in more sizes for charity clothing operations.
Several business owners at the expo frequently participate in other expo events based on their field, but Jetawn Smith, owner of My Tax Lady, said that the Columbia College Black Business Expo was different because she was in the majority as a black woman. Although a 2015 American Express OPEN study found that the number of businesses owned by black women has grown by 322 percent since 1997, Smith said she is typically one of the only women of color at financial and tax-related services expos.
Smith fielded numerous questions about new tax reform throughout the afternoon, from how to file individual returns to how recent legislative changes will affect personal returns. Smith is hoping the one-on-one contact will lead to some new clients. "I'm glad to see a community," she said.
Emphasizing the importance of supporting black businesses, event coordinator Lewis and others used the hashtag #BuyBlackSpendGreen on the event’s Facebook page. Shortly after it was published, the event page was peppered with requests from other business owners to participate or register for next year's expo. The response was reassuring for organizers.
Lewis said that in a community that experiences higher unemployment — CNN reported 8 percent unemployment for African Americans in Columbia compared to 2.5 percent general unemployment rate in the state — the support shoppers give goes further.
"When you buy black and spend green, you choose to spend your money with a black business, and it’s an empowerment that you can provide them with a voice," he said.