Celebrating Black Business Month in Pasadena: A Story of Resilience, Innovation, and Community

As August comes to a close, so also does Black Business Month, a national initiative that recognizes the achievements and contributions of Black entrepreneurs across the country. 

Many Black-owned businesses still face greater challenges than white-owned firms – challenges that the pandemic exacerbated, according to findings from the 2020 Small Business Credit Survey (SBCS). For these minority-owned businesses, the top challenge was the availability of credit. 

In Pasadena, the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce has been helping all minority businesses get a little more visibility than is already available. It’s one practicable way the organization can help reduce the disparity that these businesses have been experiencing, says Paul Little, President of the Pasadena Chamber.

“Not all but many minority-owned businesses have had an even more difficult, and slower, recovery from the pandemic,” he said. “In general, small local businesses have suffered most from the pandemic. Many minority-owned businesses are exactly that: small, locally owned businesses, often outside of high customer traffic areas.”

Little said he appreciates that the City of Pasadena often provides grants especially for those who are struggling, including Black-owned businesses. On its own, the local Chamber believes in the power of networking and community engagement to provide minority-owned businesses more exposure. 

“Networking and personal contact are vital to the growth and development of most businesses,” Little said. “We all like to do business with people we know and like. Networking allows business operators to make those connections and tell others what their business does and how it can be of service.” 

For some small Black-owned businesses, innovation, creative independence, and relevance are also key factors that have helped them attract attention, which means paying customers. 

Erika H. Chesley, the Founder of BORN Woke Collective LLC in Pasadena, CA, says she is on a mission to make a meaningful impact on families through her brand, “Woke Babies.” She has also made promoting diversity and inclusivity as the core of her business. 

“When it comes to partnerships, we actively seek collaborations with other Black- or woman-owned companies that align with our values, allowing us to create a network that uplifts and amplifies underrepresented voices,” Chesley said. “Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is reflected not only in our product offerings, but also in our messaging, actions, and deeds. As we continue to grow, we remain steadfast in our dedication to fostering a company culture and building partnerships that celebrate diversity, inclusivity, and unity.” 

BORN Woke Kids recognizes that 50.2% of children under five are born to at least one parent of color, according to the 2015 U.S. census, so Chesley and her team – she runs the company with her son and daughter, both adults –  make sure that their initiatives and projects are thoughtfully crafted to embrace and empower families from all walks of life. They also actively work at filling the gaps in American History that are often excluded, connecting families to Black-owned businesses, and supporting health equity for women of color and their babies.

Chesley believes that by celebrating Black Business Month, Pasadena brings the remarkable contributions of Black entrepreneurs to the forefront and shows the value they have brought to the community. 

“It’s an opportunity to showcase our talents, innovation, and resilience, which have historically been underrepresented,” she said. “However, it’s essential to recognize that initiatives like Black Business Month should serve as catalysts for long-term change. Just as with Black History Month, the impact should extend beyond a single month and remain top of mind throughout the entire year.”

Lynelle Bryant, President of Masbuild, Inc., a full-service design and planning firm established in Pasadena in 1996, talks about unique obstacles that her firm has faced over more than 25 years, all stemming from the fact that they’re Black-owned. It’s been frustrating, she says, but those experiences have only made them more resolute. 

“It has made us more savvy in our networking, marketing, and when negotiating teaming partnerships,” Bryant said. “Relationships are key to great business including connecting with good business consultants such as lawyers, advisors and coaches.” 

Her husband, Charles T. Bryant, started the business as an architecture firm after working for more than 25 years. He wanted Masbuild, Inc. to focus on construction and such services as construction management, project management, facilities conditions assessments, and construction monitoring. Lynelle Bryant joined the company in 2003 from an interior design and corporate facilities planning background. 

“In 2007, we decided to expand the architecture and interior design projects and transition out of general construction. Shortly after I took over as President,” she said. “Our mission has always been to provide excellent design solutions to all communities, especially to communities of color and the underserved. As a BIPOC business with a diverse team we can’t overstate how critical diverse representation is in the quality, quantity, and development of or investment within these communities.” 

For Black Business Month, Bryant has one good advice for aspiring Black entrepreneurs so they could navigate effectively through their business path – plus more. 

“Surround yourself with successful people that inspire you in the business you want to join,” Bryant said. “Take advantage of the resources that are out there through business organizations, the Chamber of Commerce and the government, that are designed to aid in your success. And to successful business owners, make it your responsibility to be a mentor, a coach or a sponsor to someone else’s growth and success.” 

Pasadena City Councilmember Tyron Hampton, who comes from a family of Black entrepreneurs, concedes that access to capital is a key barrier to Black-owned businesses, local or U.S.-wide. The other barriers are access to incubator spaces and networking, he said. 

“Banks could do a better job at having more opportunities for businesses that are black owned. There are some banks that have done that, but sometimes the numbers aren’t the best,” Hampton said. “In Black businesses’ case, the banks have not always been the friendliest and the banks have not always been amenable to supporting and giving those opportunities to businesses, and businesses just leave it at that.” 

For Hampton, the pandemic has opened up many opportunities for many Black residents in Pasadena, even among those who have tried working for corporate America and didn’t see much in terms of fruitful outcomes. Many of them, he said, have begun to think they’d do better as entrepreneurs. 

“I’d say there’s been a bigger increase in people being entrepreneurs coming out of the pandemic than before,” he said. “It’s about people realizing that the things that they really enjoy and things that they really like are things they didn’t get lining up and working nine to five, so they had to reimagine, they had to recreate the wheel. And what we’ve seen of that is there are more business owners, there’s more investors, there’s more opportunity there.” 

Hampton says the City of Pasadena has done a lot and is still doing a lot for Black-owned businesses, even through the pandemic. Working with the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, the city has advertised these businesses and posted databases about them to make them more visible to potential customers. 

But he said more needs to be done, and local residents can do their part. 

“It’s not just supporting businesses. If you could buy something that you could buy online right at the same cost at a brick-and-mortar store that’s local, I encourage you to do that,” Hampton said. “I encourage our residents to do that because supporting our local economy is extremely key. A lot of the times we think, ‘well, it’s cheaper online.’ And that may be the case in some cases, but I think it’s important that you still go to those businesses and see if they’d be willing to price-match because there may be an opportunity for them to do that.” 

For Paul Little at the Pasadena Chamber, Black Business Month should be an opportunity for local business to support each other. 

The Chamber has started an initiative to recruit businesses from underrepresented communities in the greater Pasadena area. Funded by a Chamber member, the project will allow underrepresented businesses to join the Pasadena Chamber for $100 per year. 

“Membership in the local Chamber, any local Chamber of Commerce, is the most cost-effective way for a business to grow, develop and expand,” Little said.

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