The month of February is devoted to celebrating the 400-year history of the achievements of African Americans in the United States. Some of the greatest, yet underappreciated, triumphs are those of the African American trailblazers and entrepreneurs who put their all into starting businesses.
According to the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitor Bureau website, the oldest black-owned business, Riley Funeral Home, dates back to 1957 and was started by World War II veteran James Riley. Since then, the Lansing region has had several successful black-owned businesses that contribute greatly to the community.
Alane Laws-Barker, president of the Lansing Black Chamber, said there are several black businesses in the area, and while some are larger, a lot of black businesses are entrepreneurs or mom-and-pop shops with 10 or less employees.
Although these businesses may have a different look or feel than some of the bigger commercial companies, Barker said they tend to have a larger impact on their immediate neighborhood.
“Black businesses help support the community,” said Barker. “Black businesses help create wealth in ways that we don’t have any other way to generate wealth. They’re special because they give opportunities to people and communities who wouldn’t have opportunities.”
Additionally, Barker said black-owned businesses strengthen the local economy, create jobs, tap into underused talent pools, serve the community, celebrate culture and help close the racial gap.
Ashlee Willis, owner of Lansing-based businesses Michigan Premier Events and Lansing Mosaic, said black-owned businesses are important to communities because they bring new cultures to the area.
“Lansing is really diverse within the business owners,” said Willis. “There are a lot of businesses that are coming here from different countries, or they are going to a different country and bringing back that business here to Lansing.”
Diverse businesses expose the community to cultures and things that they may not be able to otherwise experience, Willis said. Cultural diversity also brings new people to the area and improves the overall quality of life for residents.
As a black business owner, Willis understands the struggles associated with starting and owning a business as a person of color. Exposure in the community is a top issue for most new businesses, which is why she started Lansing Mosaic, a website that highlights diverse businesses in the Lansing region.
The site features African American and minority businesses through articles and videos that highlight the company’s background, missions, services and products.
“The people we feature love it because we’re showing off what they’re doing,” said Willis. “They’re actually giving the Lansing experience.”
Barker said another way black businesses gain visibility and support in the community is through diversity events and celebrations like the Lansing Juneteenth Celebration, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Luncheon and Lansing Community College Black Business Expo.
She said those events bring together the community to celebrate African American history and culture, provide a platform for businesses to promote their products and services, and motivate people of color to follow their dreams.
Tonya Bailey, chief diversity officer in Lansing Community College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said LCC started the Black Business Expo specifically to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of black business owners in the Lansing region and their contributions to the community.
“For many instances, (black businesses) were intricate in keeping the economy going for their communities during a time when society and finances as a whole for our nation were at an all-time low,” said Bailey.
“Celebrating the minority and black-owned businesses says to them that they are not forgotten. They are a part of the fabric of our economic success as a society, and they have something to offer just as our larger conglomerates.”
Celebrating black-owned businesses during the month of February is great, but remember to celebrate and support black-owned businesses all year. Visit their stores, buy their products and come out and celebrate the culture and diversity of Lansing and the businesses that make the community unique and successful.