In this episode Chris interviews Ray Thomas, founder of the Black Business Zone, an online directory for Black businesses. Thomas created this marketplace to connect buyers to Black business across America. Their discussion centers on the effects of 2020– a year of protests, pandemics and poverty that had and continues to have a crippling effect on the Black community. As Thomas points out, Black businesses closed at twice the rate of non-Black business. That rate of closure is devastating to the Black economy and the communities they serve. With a little help these businesses can receive support and prepare for unforeseen circumstances like 2020 through workshops, community engagement, and ecommerce as a way to boost sales. Tune into the show to learn more about how to grow your own Black business or support another.
So on May 25th of this year, in the middle of the pandemic, the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. It sparked worldwide protests about the killing of Black males at the hands of the police, revived the Black Lives Matter movement and, to the broader population, shed light on the many social injustices that Black people have been dealing with for centuries.
Many institutions were forced to come to grips with racial bias. In order to deal with the social inequalities, we need to provide more opportunities for people of color. I think it is going to be critical in the future to provide more support and opportunities to Black owned businesses and entrepreneurs.
With the effect of COVID-19, small business owners are worried. They are afraid to go out of business, and it's really those small businesses that more than often are the bedrock of our community. They are the ones employing people, paying taxes, and generating income that is supposed to provide wealth for the Black community.
Today we’re talking to Ray Thomas. Ray is the founder of the Black Business Zone, an online marketplace for Black business. I want to talk about a Washington Post article that said that the Black and white economic gap is actually as wide as it was back in 1968. That's crazy! So what role do you think Black business ownership plays in closing the wealth gap in this country and what can all Americans do in order to assist with closing the wealth gap through Black owned businesses?
Well Chris, first of all, thank you for having me on. That's a great question. Like you said small business is what this country was built on. Unfortunately, the Black community and Black owned businesses have not had the same access to capital like non-Black owned businesses.
I see that people have stepped up and are trying to do things. Let's be clear, since this pandemic hit from February to April, almost 41% of Black owned businesses closed. They were shuttered. That's almost twice the rate of non-Black owned businesses. If that didn't ring an alarm bell, I don't know what else will.
It's important that we not only rely on our government to help. We can also rely on the resources and the talents that we have within our community. We can come together as one strong unit and rebuild and now's the time to do it.
What brought you to found the Black Business Zone? Can you give a little background?
The pandemic affected me personally. I lost my cousin who was five years younger than me to COVID and it really woke me up. It made me realize that this is real and is affecting our communities at a much greater rate than other communities. Either we sit back and let it happen, or we step up and do something about it.
I decided to be one of those that will step up and do something about it. You know, I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I'm very philanthropic. I sit on the board for two charities, Pink Tie being one of them. I've been involved with their advisory board for almost seven years now and during this pandemic, we started working on food insecurities. We provide food to local pantries across Long Island, my hometown.
The other charity that I sit on the board for is an autism charity. That is a community that's been overlooked with the pandemic, because people don't know how to deal with that. The charity that I'm on the board for is called Pop Earth, and the founder is an autism mom and her son is non-verbal. How do you communicate to a non-verbal child that we're in a pandemic? Obviously we had to provide resources to that community as well. The pandemic, like I said, really affected the business community and not so much because of the riots and what was going on there.
A lot of businesses did have to close and they were boarded up and things of that nature. But the bigger picture was getting the message out that this country was built on war and in those instances, that's when the greatest amount of change was affected. So I think it's important now that we're in the middle of the pandemic, lots of people are suffering that we step up and do something. So what I did is start the Black Business Zone, and I started it on Juneteenth as a way for business owners, Black owned businesses, and entrepreneurs to sort of pivot and move their business online. And if they were online already– to provide them with resources, to help them grow their business online.
The platform is national. So for example, if you're in New York where I'm from, and you own an eyeglass company, let's say, you can take out a free listing on the website, and now you get national exposure. People in California can see your product and purchase your product when they search it. It's a very simple, easy to use website. I call it a cross between Craigslist, Yelp and Angie's list. It has a robust list of features, when buyers come to visit the site, they can bookmark, add a business as a favorite. So when they come back, it's easy for them to find. They could also leave reviews, which is a great thing. I mean, if you have a great product we need to let other people know. Leave a review for the product. I have some sophisticated backend stuff that helps the more reviews that they get the higher up it shows within the website. So it's a great site, easy to use blackbusinesszone.com. You know, I encourage everyone to go there, especially business owners and people that want to support Black owned businesses.
That's what I liked about it. I thought it served three purposes; one: for the consumer wanting to buy from a Black business, two: it provides a resource to businesses looking to expand their online presence , and three: corporations who want to lend support, advertise or provide sponsorship they can do that too. You're curating these businesses so that they can go to a trusted source and get quality products.
We're actively talking to some people for 2021 to establish partnerships, advertisements, and branding relationships as well. We have some exciting announcements to make and not only the Black business owners. If you notice it's a triangle [the logo] because we use three different resources. The first one we launched was the marketplace. The other thing we're gonna do is launch a television show around empowering Black entrepreneurs, showcasing entrepreneurship, providing resources. We're also going to have government officials, local and national to talk about the various services that are available to minority owned businesses.
So I'm very excited about that project. We're hoping to launch the first quarter of next year. We're also looking to hold our first summit in August. Many of you may know that August is National Black Business month, so we're looking to launch our show then. That's also the anniversary of the launch of the online marketplace. So for our anniversary and every year thereafter, we're going to do a summit. This year probably will be online because with the pandemic, to keep everyone safe it'll probably be online.
I know you're very involved with the community, and I know that you had the opportunity to provide PPE to some locals. So talk about that effort and how that went.
We were also active in the local community. So the town of Hempstead, got a federal grant to purchase PPE. Businesses can register to get PPE online, but not everybody has access to the internet so we took to the streets and went store-owner-to-store-owner and had them fill out the form and delivered PPE right away. It was a nice box, almost weighing 50 pounds. It contained hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, and the thermometer that they put to your forehead.
The nice thing about that is not only is the business owner able to provide gloves and masks to the workers, but to the customers as well. Thereby the community is getting protected and getting the PPE. When this pandemic first hit, you couldn't find this stuff and the prices on them were ridiculous. These masks that used to be 95 cents, all of a sudden were six bucks– if you could find it. So it's a great program. Hats off to the town of Hempstead and a supervisor and his team that helped us be able to help us be able to distribute the PPE in the community. Supervisor Donald Cleveland, thank you so much for making that possible for us.
I'm working with another organization to distribute winter coats to kids. Cause as winter is coming, it's very good to give back. I was firmly grounded in that through Mike Enrich came the founders of pinktie.org. Their mantra is grow your business by giving back and that's something that has stuck with me. With this project, I am looking to do the same thing to give back to our community especially Black entrepreneurs and Black business owners, because as I told you before, they've been impacted at twice the rate of non-Black owned businesses. So they're definitely in need of help.
There are some issues that we're going to address through an educational system which I'm working on. Actually I call them entrepreneurship centers, which are going to focus on financial literacy, preparedness pivoting, helping business owners move their business from brick and mortar to online and also from social media just to name a few things. It's great to be able to take advantage of the different platforms in social media but if you don’t know how to do it, it becomes a job in itself. So we're going to bring in professionals to help business owners utilize those platforms to help them grow their business. So we're very excited about being able to do that in 2021.
So continuing on, you were talking about the community and about small businesses, right? One of the issues that a lot of small business owners have is that they don't have a way to collect and utilize the feedback that they're getting from their customers in order to use that information, to help them build their business. You mentioned your site has the ability to give feedback and so, I'm gonna read you a little blurb from my upcoming book, Customer Satisfaction, It's not just your promise, it's your business.
It's from chapter 9, a whole chapter on feedback, and this is the greatest impact that the community can have on an existing small business is to give customer feedback.
By giving both positive and negative feedback, the small business is able to address the concerns or give the community more of what it's asking for. An engaged community, providing feedback to small businesses will tend to lead to businesses striving to provide better goods and services and ultimately more profitable and sustainable businesses.
So if you could elaborate on that.
That was well said I wish the book was out now. I'm actually going to offer a course, a workshop on customer service, because first of all, it's free and when implemented correctly–or utilized you can grow your business, like incredibly, just by paying attention to your customers. You know, when they tell you something don't be offended by criticism. Look at it as a way to make changes and to improve on your business model.
You know, somebody recommended me to go check out a restaurant. Obviously I do support Black owned businesses. So when I went, the GPS took me to a bagel store and I'm like, “Am I at the right address cause I saw the number?” So I went into the bagel store and I said, “Listen, sir this is the address, but this is not a Caribbean restaurant.”
“Oh yeah. Just to go to my store to the back, make a left and it's right there.” So I was like, “thank you.” So I went in the back when I went in and spoke to the owner. I said, “Hey, miss. You know the GPS is sending people elsewhere.” She says, “yeah, I know that my customers tell me that all the time.”
If that was me and I was a business owner, the first thing I would do is fix that. That's something that we really need to address especially in our community. I don't know why it's not focused on.
I was at a bar prior to COVID and meeting a client. I didn't get there on time cause I got lost. So I went to order a drink and he ordered too. He was a scotch drinker. So he ordered a high-end scotch that she didn't have. She got an attitude, she was offended by that. I'm saying to myself as a business owner, I'm like, “Hm, got a big spender here.”
Why not offer something similar or apologize? “We don't have that, but let me offer you this.” She got offended and gave the guy an attitude. So when I got there, he was ready to leave and I'm like, she has no idea that this person would have spent a lot of money there. We would have ate, would have had a good time, but she took offense because he asked for a higher-end Scotch that wasn't available.
We need to help our community. I mean, we really do. It just makes no sense to me and I can go on and on with examples. So that's something that we're going to touch on too in workshops. I do have a monthly networking group where we meet and about things like that. I'm gonna bring in experts as a matter of fact, this Friday for our holiday party I'm bringing on a PR expert who's going to talk about how public relations can be used to grow your business. I'm bringing on a person who's very familiar with the SBA program, 15 years in the business. He works at Diamond Bank. He's going to come and then talk about that.
So I'm going to be doing those sorts of things next year, having workshops to help educate our community because knowledge is power. One of the biggest things I hear about our community is access to capital, right? We're going to be offering some courses, like I said, talking about financial literacy, how to strengthen your business from an economic standpoint, key things that you should be doing. I don't want to disclose too much now because I want you guys to come into our system and be a part of our family and experience what we're going to do for you to help you grow. We're going to be working with some of the major corporations out there establishing partnerships so that we can bring these resources to you guys. So stay tuned.
Ray is an expert in small businesses and networking too. He grew that group to 1500 in just the space of a couple of months. Connect with Ray Thomas & Black Business Zone at info below:
Of course, if you need help you contact me at 516-500-1536 or go to my website, www.CustomerSatisfactionServices.com
Chief Customer Satisfaction Officer/Founder
Bryan Service Companies , Inc.– Customer Satisfaction Services