The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent state-mandated shutdowns to contain the virus forced many small businesses across the United States to close or scale back their capacity in 2020.
But according to a National Bureau of Economic Research report, Black-owned businesses took a harder hit than most white-owned businesses. The report says the pandemic resulted in 41% of Black businesses shutting down, twice the rate for white businesses.
However, in Montgomery a program called Black Market Street U.S.A. has come up with a creative way to promote black-owned businesses and encourage African American entrepreneurship in Alabama. Black Market Street is the brainchild of the G.I. Jones Foundation, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that hosts workshops for would-be entrepreneurs, including soft skills training classes, tax counseling, business plan counseling and networking opportunities.
“Black Market Street was created to be a traveling pop-up shop featuring black-owned businesses, those who may have a brick and mortar, or who may not have brick and mortar or may be fearful of having a brick and mortar,” says Iyishia Jones, who founded G.I. Jones along with her husband, Gregory Jones.
The couple are both entrepreneurs. Iyishia Jones owns the clothing boutique ISHI? in Birmingham and Montgomery.
She says the idea for Black Market Street U.S.A. came in 2019. The goal was to organize traveling pop-up shops featuring black-owned businesses to help owners promote their products and services.
“We needed an avenue where black businesses could come together, and it would be cool if we were all on the same street, and then we thought, ‘That’s the name. Black Market Street,’” Jones says.
“Introducing a pop-up environment allows them to get their feet wet,” she says. “It allows current businesses to get their name out there. It also allows businesses to network and share best practices, providing an avenue where all these businesses can come together, create a buzz and energy within itself, where people want to come out and see what’s going on.”
So, the Joneses, along with Black Market Street co-founder, Terri Reynolds, a local attorney and entrepreneur, went to work planning the project’s first pop-up event.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
City lockdowns and fears over spread of the virus forced the trio to pivot from planning a pop-up event to organizing a virtual pitch competition for small businesses instead.
The online contest, called “Ready, Set, Pitch,” offers startups and entrepreneurs a chance to submit a video pitch presenting their brand or product.
“Our objective is to encourage entrepreneurship,” Reynolds says. “So, we came up with this two-fold idea of a pitch competition where people could send in videos that are 90 seconds or less of themselves, and we would put them on our social media and put some money behind promoting it as a way for them to get the word out about their businesses.”
Local entrepreneurs along with Black Market Street founders will judge the contestants based on the quality of the videos, marketability and the level of engagement the pitches receive from audiences on social media, Reynolds says.
The pitch contest began in January and ended March 31. At press time, Reynolds said they would announce the winners in early April. The top winners will receive between $1,000 and $5,000 in prize money and an opportunity to attend a G.I. Jones business boot camp.
The contestants sell an assortment of goods and services, from beauty supplies and health and fitness coaching to engineering software.
Titania Adams, owner of Montgomery gourmet popcorn company HoneyPop Poppin, is among the contestants. When the pandemic put her expansion plans on hold, she welcomed the chance to promote her business on Black Market Street.
“It has been challenging, because in 2020 it was our goal to hire employees, at least part-time employees, to help out,” Adams says. Thanks to the pandemic, however, she is still the sole employee of the company she founded in 2017. Her husband, Robert, who holds a full-time job, helps out occasionally.
Adams says she heard about the Black Market Street pitch competition from a customer and decided to enter the contest for the chance to win a spot in the G.I. Jones business boot camp.
“As a Black business owner, I want to grow,” says Adams. “I don’t want to stay where I am, and I understand that sometimes you have to connect yourself with people who’ve been in business a long time and have the expertise to help you see things that you may not see or help you get to another level.”
All of the pitches in the competition are posted on Black Market Street’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as on Black Market Street TV, which airs on the website.
Adams says that when her video appeared on the various BMS platforms, her customers noticed and she gained new ones as well.
“I’ve gotten a lot of compliments about the video,” she says. “A lot of my customers felt like they got to see my story and the passion behind what I do.”
Besides the video pitches, Black Market Street TV also features “Black Market Street Business Break,” a half-hour online show where Reynolds interviews seasoned members of Alabama’s Black business community.
“We talk about their businesses and what they do and their services,” Reynolds says. “But we also talk with them about the triumphs and the trials they’ve endured as entrepreneurs.”
One recent guest was Celeste Reese-Willis, M.D., a physician in private practice in Birmingham who specializes in concierge medicine and telemedicine and has operated a COVID-19 testing site.
“Being on Black Market Street helped in that way to highlight the business I was already doing,” Willis says. “I’ve also been able to watch some of the other business leaders in the community. One of the things that’s been most helpful is just knowing that there are pitfalls and challenges every business owner faces and knowing that you have this person who’s being transparent with you and sharing that, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me, and this is what I was able to do.’”
In the meantime, as the COVID-19 cases in Alabama trend downward, the partners are planning their first pop-up shop event on Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of black slaves in the United States and is held on June 19. The pop-up shop event is scheduled for Saturday, June 19, at 1 p.m., at W.C. Patton Park, 3969 14th Avenue N., in Birmingham.
Jones says, “It will be our premiere event where all our businesses can come together on one street, and people can come out and support.”
This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.