Zen Bin

There were a few times this year when I thought we wouldn’t make it.

When I started The Zen Bin in 2018, I wrote out detailed business plans, saved startup dollars, and leaned heavily on family and friends. Of course, we had contingency plans for unexpected hardships, but any business owner hopes never to have to use them.

My contingency plans went out the window when we saw we were looking at more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns.

Like most businesses, we were walloped. We had to shut down entirely for seventeen months, and even when we were able to reopen, it was only at limited capacity. With the mandates to shut down locally, all of our contractors were forced to stay home and were out of work while being in one of the most triggering times emotionally for our community. Our team had to get creative about how we connected to support our communities overall wellbeing during the country shutdown. We’ve held on, but at times, only barely.

For a business owner of color, the hurdles are higher. When building The Zen Bin, the most important driver was access to startup capital. But studies have shown that white entrepreneurs are able to contribute considerably more personal equity to their new businesses than entrepreneurs of color do, because white American families have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Hispanic or Black American families.

While inequities existed before the pandemic, over the last year, they’ve gotten worse. Beyond the physical toll of COVID-19, which affected communities of color, including Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian American communities, among others, more severely than White ones, businesses of color have had less of a safety net to fall back on, have been more likely to close, and have had a harder time getting Paycheck Protection Program loans. Studies last summer showed that the pandemic shuttered Black-owned businesses at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses. It all leads to the deeply unequal recovery that we’re just now embarking upon.

The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing.

First and foremost, there needs to be investment in businesses owned by people of color from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Twelve months ago, I applied to the Comcast RISE program, which since late last year has invested in nearly 4,700 businesses owned by people of color nationwide with monetary grants, technology makeovers and marketing services. I received a technology makeover for The Zen Bin,which provided relief when it was most needed. We were able to receive complimentary internet services and two iPads for our check-in desks as well as security cameras, we are so grateful.

We’re not the only ones. Comcast RISE plans to name 13,000 recipients by 2022. We need similar commitments from other corporations to level the playing field for business owners of color.

Federal, state and local recovery programs need to target minority entrepreneurs. Too many of the existing relief efforts have had limited application windows or been first-come-first-served, which disadvantages businesses that are already starting from behind. Local organizations like the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce can be useful allies in reaching businesses owned by historically disadvantaged groups.

Finally, financial institutions need better guardrails to ensure that they don’t discriminate against nonwhite business owners. When accessing startup capital, barriers still exist for minority entrepreneurs, and keeping checks and balances on those with the balance sheets is the only way to make sure all businesses are starting on equal footing.

That way, when the next crisis hits, you’ll have fewer businesses starting from behind, and we’ll all find our way to recovery much faster. For all of us, that’s a business plan worth holding onto.

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