When Bobbi and Jade Wood were fired via text message in May, they knew they only had a matter of months to transform their dream into a business.
They had an LLC, but their business plan required a lot of work. After months of working with Missouri Women’s Business Center and Regional Economic Development Inc., the mother and daughter launched Glo Nail Bar.
The women are two of nearly 200 female or minority business owners in Columbia. That’s a significant increase over the number of such businesses identified just five years ago.
Few firms owned by minorities and women
Both scholars and local organizations had identified a scarcity of businesses owned by minorities and women.
In 2010, Alisa McDonald-Warren’s master’s thesis attracted the attention of city officials. In “Successful Black Entrepreneurs in Columbia, Missouri,” the MU student addressed the struggles many entrepreneurs face when seeking guidance on owning a business. She found that those who succeeded could not have done so without the help of family or friends.
In interviews with 24 black business owners, McDonald-Warren found that 58 percent received advanced education or training, 62.5 percent had financial support from family members in opening the business and more than 70 percent had a mentor who believed in them.
Three years later, another study found a large disparity in the proportion of black-owned businesses relative to the black population. Byndom, Stanton & Associates, working with REDI and Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Center, found that black businesses made up merely .08 percent of business in Boone County while black residents made up 16.1 percent of the county.
The City of Columbia 2016-2019 Strategic Plan identified increasing the average annual wage and helping minority startups as priorities. The city partnered with local nonprofits, resources and services to reduce the hardships minority entrepreneurs face when opening their own businesses.
Focusing on the disparity
With no social equity department in Columbia, former city manager Mike Matthes assembled a team to close the economic disparity gap. The city hired Columbia Public Schools board member James Whitt as director and supplier of its diversity program development to work with economic leaders to attract and assist female and black-owned businesses.
After reading the Bydom and Stanton report, Whitt told Matthes that the only way to mend the city’s relationship with the black business community was to recognize the displacement that occurred in the 1950s and ’60s in the Sharp End, which was Columbia’s historic black business community nestled within the northwest corner of downtown. The business district included black families in tenement housing but also attracted individuals from across mid-Missouri to shop, dine and enjoy nightlife. But it was erased by urban renewal programs that ended in 1966.
“You’ve gotta face up to the past, because that’s haunting you, because there’s a lot of mistrust in the community,” Whitt told Matthes. “If you make an effort to do something, nobody’s going to believe you, because you haven’t dealt with the past. So I said, ‘Let’s deal with the past, and then we can move forward.’”
Canvassing the community
Whitt first wanted to identify the minority and female businesses in the community. He created the Minority & Women Owned Business Directory to list business owners in Columbia that possess certifications such as Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) or Women Owned Business Enterprise (WBE).
In the first year, the directory identified 135 businesses owned by minorities or women. Three years later, that number had jumped to to 186.
According to the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity, to obtain a certification, at least 51 percent of the business must be owned by a minority and/or female. Out of 186 listed businesses, there are 118 MBE and 95 WBE in the database. Certification gives minority businesses a leg up in winning city, state and federal contracts.
Whitt encourages all businesses that are eligible to become certified. Aside from creating and updating the database, he provides counseling, education on certifications and networking opportunities with groups such as the Columbia Chamber of Commerce for current and potential minority businesses at REDI.
HB-A Consulting is one of 18 minority- or female-owned consulting agencies certified in Columbia and one of REDI’s clients. Holly Burton-Aro, a management consultant for environmental engineers, found that a WBE certification would benefit her.
“In coming to Columbia and sort of the combination of my background, it was just a little difficult to find something, a job, that I felt would be in line with sort of the diverse background that I’ve had, because I’m not a typical engineer,” Burton-Aro said.
She was fascinated by water as a child and later studied water and solid waste. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at McGill University in Montreal.
After completing an in-depth application process, Burton-Aro found the MBE and WBE certifications would be most beneficial for her. While it helped her land a big project, she said the certification is just “icing on the cake.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you have the MBE certification or not; there’s still a lot of work you need to do to get work,” Burton-Aro said. “It may differentiate you from another company if there’s an MBE requirement, but it’s still about relationships. It’s still about doing good work that makes other companies want to work with you.”
While various MBE directories can help connect minority-owned businesses with prime contractors and knowledge of upcoming opportunities, Burton-Aro said, bigger companies sometimes misinterpret the type of services that a small business owner can provide.
“I find that people tend to want to put companies with those certifications into a little box that are considered commodity services and assume that they do certain things,” Burton-Aro said. “Do you want to be that person that’s just a check in the box, or do you want to do something that you’re passionate about and really drives you?”
REDI seeks to help
Along with services and partnerships, REDI offers an Innovation Hub to provide a work space for local startups or businesses. HB-A Consulting is one of 26 REDI clients that uses the hub.
REDI Entrepreneurship Coordinator Collin Bunch provides additional services to hub partners and offers support to entrepreneurs looking to take the next step in owning and operating their own business.
Bunch says most clients are farther along in their business idea than they think and that they just need guidance in transforming that idea into a business.
“Many (entrepreneurs) have stayed away from the hardest things, like talking to customers or really testing (a product or service) out,” Bunch said. “Some of our role is to push people to take those steps, and then a lot of the resources we have in helping people understand financing, how to get loans if they need them or how to sell and market.”
REDI also works alongside other nonprofits to provide services for female business owners.
When the Woods went to Central Bank to meet about opening a business, they were directed to the Missouri Women’s Business Center. Jade Wood said the center worked with her and Bobbi up until they pitched their business to loan officers.
“Everybody was helpful. No one talked down on each other. They didn’t talk at you if you didn’t understand something; they took time to make sure you understood something, not making you feel dumb or useless,” Jade Wood said.
The mother-daughter team takes pride in its completely renovated location. Each pedicure chair has a clear tub and ventilation that reduces chemicals and germs in the salon, and the two installed a curved table to encourage open conversation while customers receive manicures. Glo Nail Bar is an open layout that creates “better vibes” than the Woods’ last place of employment.
Jade Wood said she started paying more attention to her mom, who — with an injured knee, two kids at home and nearly 25 years of experience — was making 40 percent less than what she should have been earning.
“I didn’t feel like I had a team any more, and it was making me not like my craft as much, and I didn’t like that feeling. But when we got Glo Nail Bar going and saw all of the people that were supporting us and the feeling of that weight lifting after I left, I knew it was the right decision,” Bobbi said.
After 5½ months of preparation that went into opening Glo Nail Bar, Bobbi and Jade Wood said they hope they can direct all aspiring female entrepreneurs to the Missouri Women’s Business Center.
“They’re very geared towards helping women and empowering women,” Bobbi said. “They really motivate you to go out and get what you want.”