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Despite Downturn, Black-Owned Businesses Find Relief in Community

Alicia Wilburn's candle line, Two Fat Babies, features a cartoon of her two children on the label. The pandemic has threatened her business just north of Richmond, but she's found relief in the community of Black-owned businesses. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

About two and a half years ago, Alicia Wilburn began a new candle line as part of her company, Mama A’s Bath and Body Products, which is Black and Indigenous owned. She named the new series of candles “Two Fat Babies,” and the label features a cartoon of her two children.

Wilburn says the plan was to quit her full time job this year so she could focus solely on her business. But COVID-19 brought a change of plans. She says she’s become “well acquainted with being under-rested.”

“I will work my 45 hours this week, and then after I get off work, on Wednesday night I will stay up until about four making candles,” she said.

Wilburn says her company has seen a decrease in income of about 70% during the pandemic. She’s not alone. A study from over the summer found that the number of small business owners in the U.S. decreased by 22% from February to April. Black business owners were hit hardest, with their numbers dropping by 41%.

Throughout the hardships of the pandemic, Wilburn says Mama A’s has found relief in local markets and groups that showcase local businesses — groups like BLK RVA, a partnership with Richmond Region Tourism that focuses on attracting customers to local Black-owned shops and restaurants.

“This is a great time to give back to your own community,” said BLK RVA’s Tameka Jefferson. “Many of those businesses are within our own community, and when you patronize there, you're paying into the pockets of people who live in your own city, in your own community.”

For Wilburn, she says those dollars go to keeping a roof over her family’s head, and sending her children to the doctor. She says shopping local means money continues to circulate within the community, as her company often prioritizes fellow local businesses when buying materials and resources.

Natasha Crosby and their wife started a plant business, Green Vibes RVA, over the summer. Crosby says despite this year’s challenges, their shop has been received with open arms by a resilient network of local Black-owned businesses in Richmond.

“It's been very much a collaborative effort. I feel like we are all trying to manage through this pandemic together, and we've got each other's backs,” Crosby said.

Jefferson adds that interest in Black-owned businesses and restaurants has spiked following the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, not just from individual customers, but also from large corporations.

“It's been long overdue. People have seen the discrepancies and disadvantages that Black-owned businesses have experienced,” she said. “People are paying attention now, and we want the Richmond region to be an example of what it should look like across the world.”

In turn, Wilburn says the focus on Black-owned businesses allows them to further their own advocacy work.

“We have been donating our extra shipping costs this year to the Navajo Relief Fund. The Navajo Nation has been disproportionately affected by COVID. It's one of the hardest hit areas and nations within the US who often experience food insecurity and water insecurity,” she said.

Jefferson commends the many Black-owned businesses that have adapted to the pandemic by moving their operations online. She also says businesses have benefitted from websites and apps that list Black-owned businesses in particular, such as Blocal Search and the VA Black Business Directory, both of which launched last winter.

“Business owners are trying to be creative and figure out, ‘how can we still reach our client base, whether it’s current customers or new customers? How can we still reach them to ensure that they get the products and services that they need?’” she said.

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