As we continue to be conscious and proud of our Blackness, most of us have decided to become more intentional with supporting Black-owned businesses. As I reflected on my own experiences and passion about Black businesses, I realized that most of my jobs have been with Black business owners.
I was excited just as any young teenager to start my first job. After relentless applications, I finally had an interview for a dry cleaner about two miles away from my home. My mother had prepped me and made sure I had on business attire for the interview. As I walked in, I was greeted by a Black gentleman and he directed me to the office. I walked in the office and was interviewed by Ms. Vivian, a vivacious and straight-forward Black woman. She was the co-owner of the cleaners and hired me to work for her.
Yes, I saw a Black woman in a leadership position at the age of 16. Little did I know how that image would impact me for the rest of my life.
Through that job and others that followed, I learned a lot. I will highlight four valuable lessons I've held close that are worth sharing for Black business owners and employees of Black businesses.
1. A Black woman in leadership is not a b***h, she’s a boss.
We’ve heard the saying. We’ve heard it in songs. Beyonce said it. Nicki Minaj spoke about it. There is a stigma about a woman in a leadership position, particularly a Black woman, that makes people uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to call her a b***h instead of calling her a boss. As Nicki Minaj stated, “When I am assertive, I'm a b***h. When a man is assertive, he's a boss.”
I stated in my introduction that Ms. Vivian was a vivacious and straight-forward Black woman — and she was just that. But that’s what I loved about her. She was authentic in her Blackness, wearing her hair the way she chose, while conducting business professionally. She had a “tell it like it is” way about her that could easily come off as “b***hy,” however, it was needed to get the job done. She had to manage employees and make sure the business stayed profitable. This was not an easy job and required her to be assertive. It required her to be a boss.
She taught me at age 16 to always view myself as a boss in leadership positions and be as assertive as I needed to be in order to get the job done. This lesson also taught me how to accept and oblige to the leadership of a Black woman instead of perpetuating the b***h stigma.
2. Learn skills and duties other than your job responsibility.
The second lesson that Ms. Vivian would teach me is to learn other duties beside your job responsibility. This lesson is multi-faceted. She taught me how to do other duties besides just cashier and tagging. And I asked questions. I learned that each dry-cleaning business needs someone to operate machinery, steam clothing, press clothing, cashier, organize clothing and cashier/customer service. By teaching one employee, two duties, money is saved.
Through that lesson, I also learned that learning is priceless. Teaching someone a skill can provide opportunities for them even if it’s not with your company. With all the knowledge I had about the dry cleaner’s business, I could’ve started my own business. It also gives practice in leadership. It is always better for a leader to be familiar with all parts of a business and all job duties.
Leaving the dry cleaners and working some other jobs in between, I found work at a mortgage company. This mortgage company is owned by a Black man named Bill. Bill went to college, worked as a realtor and moved himself up the ranks to become a broker and to start his own company. I worked at Bill’s company as an administrative assistant. However, this job changed the way I thought about business.
3. Be personable. This will sell.
Bill was personable to all his employees and clients. He asked questions, engaged and listened. Most importantly, he made sure his office made people feel comfortable. It was my responsibility to offer clients coffee, tea, water and snacks. I also was personable with clients, asking them about their day, dog, parents or recreational adventures. I learned early on from my mother that a smile goes a long way. So, I made sure I smiled at every client that walked through the door. I also made sure I smiled on the phone. Believe it or not, people can tell if you are smiling over a phone call.
In a place of service or selling, we must serve. Bill made sure his staff understood that concept. We were creating an environment on the phone and in person that was luxurious and pleasant. It was also my responsibility to make sure the office looked warm and welcoming. I made sure the decor was personable, the magazines were neat and the office was clean. These small things made clients trust that they should do business with us.
Bill continued to teach me valuable lessons through my time as an employee at his office. He taught me about business and running a business. I learned how to navigate phone calls, gain clients, write memos, meet deadlines, manage and treat staff, and how to be profitable. Beyond all, Bill taught me the importance of being your own boss.
The job was not easy and there were moments where the office pushed hard to get deals, however the reward was great. Ms. Vivian and Bill both taught me the fourth valuable lesson.
4. Employee Management is important. Treat your employees well and they will produce.
Starting at the dry cleaners, I was making more than most of my high school friends because the dry cleaners made it priority to start everyone at $11 an hour (back then, minimum wage was around $7.25). There were definitely some interesting people that worked at the dry cleaners, but Ms. Vivian did a great job managing everyone. She would make the initiative to switch schedules if needed and accommodate the best she could. She held us to our responsibilities but also allowed us to have fun. She would even jump in and help when business started to get busy. We always had holiday gifts and celebrations. She would also get us drinks during the hot summer months because there was no air conditioning in the dry cleaners.
Working at the mortgage company, Bill heightened my ideas of treating employees well. We would all have a goal and if we accomplished the goal as a team at the end of the month, we would all get bonuses. Beyond the bonuses, Bill would treat all his employees to lunch every other Friday. He always made sure his employees were great and had whatever they needed to get the job done. He would even gift us baseball tickets to baseball games he could not attend.
Did things go wrong and employees had to be fired? Of course. That comes with every job and management position. However, treating employees well will produce the maximum results necessary for a business to succeed.
Each of these jobs made me feel a part of a family, and that motivated me to work harder, even on the days I was tired or wanted to slack.