Owning a small business has always been difficult, particularly if you’re facing discrimination because of your gender or race.
Add in an economic crisis brought on by the perfect storm of a pandemic, supply chain problems, inflation, overseas conflicts, and empty legislative promises, and Iowa’s small business owners have had it rough lately.
At a recent roundtable in Waterloo, three small business owners who are also Black women discussed the larger issues weighing them down as they navigate the economy these days.
Food aid cut while costs rise
ReShonda Young, an entrepreneur and founder of the Popcorn Heaven franchise, noted price hikes on food in conjunction with a decrease in food assistance have meant hard times for women especially.
“A conversation that I’ve had with several people—and it has been all women, women with children, who have had their food assistance cut and are struggling to buy food now,” Young said. “[One woman] was receiving $200-and-something during the pandemic, and then just last month her assistance was cut down to $19.”
That drastic cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars, a result of Iowa ending its public health emergency disaster proclamation in February, was forwarned by the Iowa Hunger Coalition. In April, the nonprofit said such drops would cause massive food insecurity among the roughly 290,000 Iowans on SNAP.
“Even though she’d like to buy meat or eggs or other things, the junk food is cheaper,” Young said. “And, of course, that just raises health issues and health care costs long term.”
Auri Redding, who owns four businesses, including Ari’z Lounge and Kravve Popcorn both in Waterloo, has a background in public health. She said, even if the food issue didn’t relate directly to her business, it “affects everyone I see around me.”
“We want to talk about obesity, but how can we counteract that when people aren’t making enough?” Redding said.
Nia Wilder, a Waterloo City Councilor and owner of Spark Lot, said low wages mean workers, primarily women, work two or even three jobs just to get by and sacrifice time with their children in the process.
“You run into the issue of pay, and then—when you get a little deeper than that—you also run into the issue of what their kids might feel with their mom not being there,” Wilder said. “You see a parent work so hard, but then bring home so minimal.”
Business owners can’t afford employee health care
Young bemoaned America’s health-care system—the most expensive in the world with the worst outcomes among developed nations—as being particularly onerous in forcing local businesses to shoulder the costs.
“There’s so many things that small business owners have to carry on their shoulders. Whose great idea was it that health care needed to be one of them?” she said.
Spark Lot, Wilder’s business is a local goods consortium. She said since her employees were also in business for themselves, “we don’t even have to talk about health care, thank goodness,” but noted she “wouldn’t be able to” afford it.
“There are so many things that go into owning a small business and keeping up,” Wilder said. “It should be, when you are born into this country, you don’t have to worry about, should you go to the dentist, should you go to the doctor … You should have that health security.”
Redding said the cost of health care was a big reason she’s unable to add employees.
“We absolutely would love to branch out and have more employees, but we just simply can’t because of that,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to offer them all the things that we want to offer.”
Her own health insurance as a recent college graduate comes from her father, an employee of Deere and Co.
“He’s worked at John Deere, breaking his body down, my entire life to make sure that we have that health care,” Redding said. “Without it, I’m not quite sure what we’d have.”
Scant access to capital and wealth-building
“Lack of wealth and access to capital limits the ability of women and people of color, and those with disabilities, to become entrepreneurs or take risks,” said Sue Dinsdale, executive director of the Iowa Citizens Action Network, which hosted the discussion.
Redding said some people see her four businesses and assume she’s got everything under control. That’s far from the case, she said.
“We have just us few running four businesses, and we’re trying so hard,” she said. “The concept of working hard to build wealth is just kind of impossible in the economy we have.”
“The cost of living is your body, your happiness, your life—that’s the cost of working that hard,” she said.
Young noted she’s trying to change that by having conversations with banks and credit unions about increased fair lending to Black women, who are at a “double disadvantage,” she said.
“Oftentimes, I think we’re just expected to either not know that we’re being treated unfairly, or you just deal with it—because what are you going to do?” Young said.
After years of hearing the CEOs tell her they supported Black entrepreneurs while hearing Black entrepreneurs report they couldn’t get loans, Young finally decided to start her own financial institution, Bank of Jabez, to intentionally support people of color denied home and commercial loans.
“[I wanted to] create the system, create this bank, create something that’s going to be fair and equitable to all people, so at least—starting here—we have someplace where we can go and we know that race, color, your gender, your gender identity, none of that stuff matters because it shouldn’t,” Young said. “And you start with a company culture of that.”
By Amie Rivers
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