Pass the Mic: Local Black Female Business Owners on How to Be a Better Ally

As protests start to quiet down and social media feeds slowly return to photos of pets and kids, it’s more evident than ever that it’s up to us to carry the momentum, to make sure lasting change actually happens. 

So what happens next? We asked four Black female business owners in Little Rock three questions on how friends, neighbors and colleagues can work to become true allies to the Black community.

Below you’ll find insights from Carmen Portillo of Cocoa Belle Chocolates, Linda Rowe Thomas of Romás by Linda Rowe Thomas, Ganelle McBryde of The Giovanna Group and Kristie Smith of KSmith Properties Realty and the Real Estate Institute.

It’s time to listen.


How can allies show up for Black-owned small businesses?

CARMEN: I believe true allies have been showing up for Black-owned businesses all along, whether that’s consistently buying our products or services or including Black-owned businesses in events or programming. Now more than ever, allies are boosting our businesses with a megaphone to show their support. Awareness is half the battle. Black-owned businesses have always existed, but we’re often in the shadows because of the unique systemic challenges we have to overcome.

LINDA: Now is the time for action. Our allies can show up for Black-owned businesses in several ways. First, be a voice! Simply speaking up and allowing your voice to be a part of the actions that are required to create change. Second, support is essential! Showing support can be as simple as sharing each other’s businesses via social media platforms; sharing knowledge and resources that will help Black-owned businesses to not only sustain, but continue to grow as the world of business transitions.

GANELLE: Think through how your support can be sustained. Find the places where supporting Black business easily fits into your lifestyle. Creating a whole new expense isn’t sustainable, but pinpointing those purchases that can be made consistently will make a huge difference. Several great lists are searchable on the web, including Soirée‘s 150+ businesses to support in Little Rock. I also recommend following @blackenterprise on Instagram. 

You should also know that perfection is a tool used to perpetuate the illusion of white supremacy. White people are not expected to be free from human error, but perfection is irrationally demanded of Black people. Be aware of the potential for being overly critical and for implementing unnecessary pre-requisites and/or demands.

KRISTIE: We are living in an unprecedented, but necessary time in our society. Now is the time for our allies to be intentional, purposeful and deliberate in seeking out Black-owned businesses to support. I love that Soirée created the online directory to help our allies find Black-owned businesses that provide the products and services they’re looking for. Honestly, it’s easy to just run to a big box chain for goods and services, but the financial support of Black-owned businesses has multifaceted benefits to our communities. 

For starters, when you support Black-owned, it helps us to build consumer confidence in our businesses and our capabilities as professionals, because we really have to work for it compared to our counterparts. 

In addition to helping us build trust and consumer confidence, most Black-owned businesses and start-ups are self-funded and working with limited capital. Many Black entrepreneurs have gone into business as a means to an end of limited opportunities in the workplace. We don’t have rich relatives to give us “small million-dollar loans” to start our businesses and many lack the business credit and collateral to obtain business loans. We’re already operating at a deficit, and now the current state of affairs has disproportionately affected Black businesses in such a way that it’s being reported that 40% will go under during this pandemic.

Your financial support really does help grow those businesses, and the growth of those businesses in turn helps to grow our communities by putting entire families on an upward trajectory to solidifying generational wealth.

Supporting Black businesses right now means strengthening our communities and helping to close the wealth gaps that are being reported, numbers that say white families have 10x more net worth than Black families. Black business owners employ members of their families and communities and are often a source of education in business etiquette, meaning Black business owners often go on to inspire the next Black business owner. 

There is a passage in the Bible that says, “Where your treasures are, the desires of your heart are also. (Luke 12:34)” So take a little extra time when planning and shopping to deliberately seek out and consistently support Black-owned businesses and initiatives. The small incremental steps that our allies make today can make for a better tomorrow for us all.


What advice would you give on how to have meaningful conversations on diversity in the workplace?

CARMEN: First, if you’re having conversations about diversity in the workplace it’s important to listen to the people who are marginalized. People of color already know the challenges of being part of a society or organization that wasn’t originally constructed to include them. Ask for their input and listen to the feedback objectively. Secondly, discussions and awareness are great; however, they lose validity if an organization or company doesn’t act on those findings. Change workplace policy, make organizational commitments and lift up the voices of people of color in your workplace. Lastly, if you’re having conversations about diversity, yet there’s no person of color at your company or on your board, maybe you can start there.

LINDA: Having meaningful conversations on diversity will require having an open mind to change. We must be willing to listen to different perspectives and work together to establish suitable measures that provide respectful and thriving relationships. Most importantly, we will need to hold each other accountable in order to ensure our efforts are not in vain or become lost in a trend.

GANELLE: Prior to any conversation among coworkers, those who are not Black should do their own research to understand what white power has done to Black people in the last century. Black people are oppressed, the object of white supremacy, but white people are the subject. The idea is to understand how whiteness has worked, not “what happened” to Black people. Then, examine your own relationships with Black people in the office. Try to identify how the illusion of white supremacy manifests in your work life. 

Know that you don’t have to list your credentials or make a social media post to prove that you are an ally. We already know. If you have questions, consult a Black person with whom you have a genuine relationship. Ask them if they are comfortable discussing the movement with you. If they aren’t, give them grace and move on. If they are, be genuine. Black people don’t expect for you to “get it right” or always “say the right thing.” We’re keenly aware that implicit bias is at play and appreciate when you do, too. 

If you are a decision-maker, hiring an outside consultant to train executive staff and review your budget, policies and procedures for unintended bias is a must to ensure your money is where your mouth is. Asking for anonymous feedback from Black employees can also be insightful. 

What I see most often is that many organizations want to “reach” the Black or Spanish-speaking communities without building genuine relationships in those spaces. First of all, we are everywhere, so understand “us” as individuals rather than a section of town to be marketed to. Secondly, Black people know when you are reaching out because you want Black business or participation. So find a real reason to connect and be intentional in ensuring real relationships are built with individual people. 

Knowing how the illusion of white supremacy functions in your life (it does) and building real relationships with Black people is truly the only way to be an ally. 

KRISTIE: Meaningful conversations are necessary in the workplace, but those conversations have to be met with what I call “cultural clarity.” We all come from different walks of life. Gaining clarity and understanding of cultures and experiences other than your own is how we have conversations that make a difference. Education is an important component in gaining that cultural clarity. We live in the information age, so ignorance of other cultures is really a choice.

I had an Asian client that I used to bow to when we met. He laughed every single time. He wasn’t from a bowing culture, but he didn’t speak English to tell me that wasn’t necessary. When I looked up a proper greeting in his culture, I, too, had a good laugh, because a handshake would have sufficed. 

My intentions were good, but I was ignorant. I’m just glad my actions weren’t offensive, which can be the case when we don’t educate ourselves on other cultures. I can remember my Latina friends informing me I was learning “proper” Spanish in school and other cultures have diverse dialects and slang. 

I remember a co-worker asking me about slang Black people use. I explained colloquialism to him by using our Southern drawls as an example. Northerners chuckle when we say “y’all” and “fixin’ to.” but we understand each other perfectly well in the South. I think he appreciated that little chat and I was happy to help him gain a little more clarity.

My advice to those looking for ways to have meaningful conversations is to also have plans of action, adding cultural and diversity education to the game plan. When we begin to understand our own implicit biases and peel back the layers of ourselves and others, those are the conversations that really invoke change. 


Dismantling systemic racism is the long game, but have you had any encouraging moments or encounters in the past couple weeks?

CARMEN: I’ve been encouraged by everyone’s focus of educating themselves on the history of race relations in this country. There’s been a focus on learning the true American history in order to not keep making the same mistakes as before. African American history is American history. Whether you’re just now learning about Juneteenth or Black Wall Street for the first time, it’s about expanding our knowledge as a nation to better the future for generations to come. 

LINDA: Whether in business or my personal life, I’ve always surrounded myself with a diverse group of individuals. I am extremely proud to see my friends as well as business associates stepping up to use their voices and show their support to me, the cause and the Black-owned business in our community.

GANELLE: I am encouraged by the continuation of peaceful protests. I believe deeply in the idea of democracy, and the echo of marginalized voices is exactly what democracy looks like, so that thrills me. I’m encouraged by my 3-year-old’s strength and resilience. Sometimes, I feel seen. Occasionally, I feel as if my experience has been understood. 

But honestly, I’d be lying if I said that being encouraged doesn’t give me pause in this moment. History prevents me from feeling like some huge about-face is pending. We will make progress, specifically in criminal justice, it seems, and in Congressional representation. But Black folks know this struggle will continue and, unfortunately, what MLK warned us about is still true. Well-intentioned white folks will consistently choose their comfort over my freedom. Ending the institution of slavery was anything but cozy. Dismantling its effects will be no less jarring, I’m afraid. 

From a Birmingham jail, he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.'”

KRISTIE: One recent afternoon, my husband was power washing the house and tried to spray down a spider web. A spider web, as you know, is some of the strongest material known to man, not even the spray from the power washer could remove it. It had to be torn down. 

Systemic racism is a very strong web that has spawned throughout our society for generations. We have to tear it down and, collectively, we have to do the work to build a new, equally strong, web of understanding, acceptance and inclusion. You have to just start spinning where you are. One person waking up every day with the intention to do work on their part of this new web is how it happens. 

I’ve had some really encouraging moments over the past couple of weeks that have restored my faith in humanity. The global participation in solidarity moved me to a much deeper awareness of MLK’s notion that, “‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Seeing global brands and businesses coming out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement had been extremely encouraging. Our friends have chosen to no longer remain silent about the elephant in the room. 

I’m hoping this sort of thing will continue because we’re in the midst of such a monumental moment in time, and we cannot return to our old ways of life. That’s called growth. Dismantling systemic racism is a long game, that is true, but we can all commit at any moment to do our part. That’s how this new web starts to take shape.


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