What it means to be a Black Owned Business
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
In light of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world, we wanted to share our experience so far as a black owned startup in the UK. Firstly, I think it’s worth noting that prior to being labelled as such, we never identified ourselves as being a black owned business, just a business. Whilst we hadn’t stopped to acknowledge that was the identity society had labelled us with, we were all well accustomed to what connotations that label could come with having grown up as black Londoners and all the connotations that come with that label. And somehow despite all of the negativity and objective reasons why life is harder as a black state school Londoner, we wear that label with pride, almost with an attitude that says 'we survived'. We took the expectations and statistics, carried it on our backs and came out with our university degrees. So whilst we hold our inner city blackness as a badge of honor, the cruel thing is we hold it that way because knew we completed a harder game. We weren’t playing with the same rules as our suburban white counterparts.
It hit me in a profound way when I was at the University of Bath and during Freshers Week, the standard conversation starter was “what school did you go to?” At first I thought to myself what a stupid question, you’re not even from east London, why on earth would you know my school. But as the week went on, and I realized the question wasn’t coming across as stupid to everyone else, it was because they were all part of the same private school circuits and knew of each other. It rose to the top of the icebreaker ranks because it was the quickest for my counterparts to identify social status, and I think more importantly, form familiar connections (as for some reason they all seemed to know at least one person from each other’s schools.) At that point I realized, oh I really did have to work a lot harder than most people here to get in this lecture hall.
So as you can imagine, we wear the label of being a black owned business with pride, but also with a sense of apprehension of how that will be perceived. Does Black Pound Day (an initiative set up to maintain wealth within the black community) help us or encourage the proverbial them to think we are reliant on handouts? Do the damning statistics on black business prove inherent institutional racism, or show (the all to poorly defined) them that black businesses aren’t worth the investment? Prior to last month, we had never declared ourselves as a black owned business and purposefully set out to develop the business in a way where we could be self-sufficient; slow and steady growth with measured risk adjusted investments. It’s now very clear to me that approach was driven by the subconscious mentality that the standard options for growth and investment will not be readily available to us. More inherent in our psychology, deep rooted in being a black Londoner, we had been instilled with a defense mechanism not to trust. Everything we’ve been told, from our parents, to social media, to our experience at school and worst of all, the news, is that the world is out to get us. So whilst a desire to be self sufficient is not an issue in an among itself, in the conversation of our experience of a black owned business, it is definitely included in the discussion.
I suppose the fact we felt the need to come out and embrace the societal label and have to consider how that affects our marketing and growth plans further highlights the complications involved in setting up a business as a black person. Am I staying true to my culture (a culture that in the UK hasn’t actually been defined by us and is clouded with negativity and propaganda)? If I am successful, is it okay to one day sell out to the proverbial white man (I use ‘proverbial’ carefully here, because I think generalizing any race or subset can be dangerous in the long term fight for equality but a necessary evil in the progressing the conversation)? At first, it sounds quite inconsequential but add all these things up and it can take a toll.
Now I’m acutely aware, I haven’t yet mentioned any of the positives that come with the societal labelling. In fact the positives and negatives change over time because they are simply a matter of perspective. I was discriminated against at school for being black, yep that’s a clear negative right? I was discriminated against at school for being black and put forward to attend the London School of Economics Summer School program only open to BAME students, okay that ones a positive. You could count on one hand the number of students with Caribbean ethnicity that attended the University of Bath, got to be a negative feeling so alone. And here is where the perspective comes in, actually being one of the only Caribbean students made me feel like a massive overachiever, did wonders for my self-esteem. I’d spent twenty years defying expectations and doing things I wasn’t supposed to be doing. Naturally, we ingrained that culture into Bodyshots to go against the grain and pursue creativity even if that means carving out our own lane. We like being outside of the box, which is what makes us innovative.
Every time I went to a networking event or interview and I was the only black face in the room, I didn’t know whether that was going to go against me. The only thing I knew for certain was that, I was going to be remembered. My first impression was going to count more than anyone else, but its up to me what that first impression was going to be. Its unjust that that was the case, but it was the rules to the game I was playing, it was my experience. I spent a lot of time trying to fit in, and make sure nothing could be held against me, believe me I’ve been rejected from jobs for very questionable reasons, but my perspective always tried to look for the positive. Resilience! When I start my own business I won’t be subject to that, but I’ll take the resilience you gave me to come out stronger. Now, I consider myself lucky that I’ve never experience severe explicit racial abuse in the UK (not so lucky abroad), so I appreciate my attitude of ‘take whatever it is and turn it into a positive’ isn’t a one size fits all approach that will work for everybody to resolve inequality. But I do think the point around perspective is key. While we can all strive for a more just tomorrow, the change starts within ourselves. What can we impact, what can we control? It is different for everybody, but what we can all control is the way we react.
So to answer the question of what has it been like to be a black business startup in the UK, it is very similar to being a black Londoner growing up in the UK. Branded with a label with widely perceived negative connotations, desensitized during our growth phase and accepted the rules to the game we are playing that were not designed for us to succeed. But we wear that label with great pride and embrace the challenge of those perceived disadvantages carrying them as extra tools in our skill belt to navigate the corporate world.
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