City launches loan program, while local entrepreneur creates black business directory

The city of Charlottesville is working to support small businesses owned by minorities through a new loan program. At the same time, a small-business owner has created a directory of African American-owned businesses in the area.

In March, the City Council launched its Business Equity Fund. As an initiative of Councilor Wes Bellamy, the equity fund is a loan program for existing businesses within the city that are minority-owned. It is an effort to provide capital access to people who traditionally have faced entrepreneurial barriers.

Hollie Lee, chief of workforce development strategies for the city’s economic development department, said the Business Equity Fund is to “make sure it goes to those who could have a harder time” applying for other loans.

The fund will be administered in partnership with the Community Investment Collaborative. Lee said interested small-business owners who have been established for at least six months can contact the economic development office to determine if they are eligible before being directed to the CIC to begin the process.

Hollie Lee, chief of workforce development strategies for Charlottesville’s Office of Economic Development, said her office has rolled out several grants and loans for businesses since the pandemic outbreak. Credit: Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlotesville Tomorrow

The Business Equity Fund offers a subsidized interest rate of up to 3%, which is below the typical market rate.

Lee said the council allocated about $109,000 for the initiative. She said most of the loans will range between $5,000 and $20,000.

“Council felt that up to 3% would be more manageable and be less of a burden on the small-business owners,” Lee said.

The fund came ahead of the announcement of a state-level focus on supporting minority businesses.

Among his 40 suggested amendments to the General Assembly budget, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed allocating $65,000 from the general fund to the Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity to create programming for women- and minority-owned businesses. Northam also proposed that the department use $500,000 from the general fund to hire a firm to conduct a disparity study.

Those efforts failed when state legislators began deliberations on the budget during the reconvened legislative session in Richmond this past week.

According to Lee, Charlottesville also is developing its own SWaM (small, woman-owned and minority-owned business) directory that will include vendors that are registered with the city on its website, minority-business-program. Phase 1 lists only registered vendors that sell goods or services that the city purchases.

Meanwhile, a local media marketing strategist and small-business owner, Destinee Wright, has created a black business directory on her blog at 2018/11/23/blackownedbusinesses-cville. Among the businesses listed are beauty product sellers and services such as photography, air conditioning and catering.

After a conversation with a friend about supporting small black-owned businesses in the area, Wright began to post about the ones she knew of and then researched more. Her post circulated on social media, garnering more than 1,000 views. Wright has continued to update the directory and altered her personal website to put it on the front page.

It was an idea born on and fostered by social media, and Wright has considered creating a categorized site for the business roundup, as well, but she is still gathering content.

“I’m trying to give everyone a place online where we can find them easier. I’m including people at different stages of their entrepreneurial journey,” Wright said, noting how some businesses might have just started or might not have their own websites.

“We already have a lot of people working out of their homes or having issues finding a brick-and-mortar storefront in Charlottesville. Charlottesville is expensive,” Wright said. “Imagine just getting started and not having those resources or business loans and access to capital. You can’t afford that at the moment. You’re in survival mode at that time.”

When not updating the directory, Wright operates two small businesses of her own: Plaited Beauty (formerly Luxie Beauty), a mobile hair service that focuses on braids; and Destinee Marketing LLC, a social media and marketing company.

Meanwhile, the city has looked to Wright’s directory as it seeks to expand its pool of vendors with whom it can contract.

“We are aware of Destinee’s list and are familiar with most of the businesses that are listed,” Lee said. “We’ve conducted outreach to the few we did not know. Our focus is more on [SWaM companies] that can sell products to the government. If someone is selling jewelry or lotion, it’s a great contribution to Charlottesville, but that’s not our target at the moment.”