For Tonisha Roberts, a first-time business owner, the pandemic resulted in a temporary pause on her customized apparel company, Reality Effects Anybody’s Life (REAL).
“COVID-19 totally reset everything for everyone, whether you are a 30-year-old business or one that has been up for 30 seconds,” she says. “Not a lot of people were able to spend money given the financial circumstances. It was basically about providing and we, like a lot of people in the community, did not have a savings pot for COVID-19 to happen.”
Roberts and her fiancé launched the business three years ago to fund their growing mentorship program, which aims to provide basic life skills classes to families within the local Columbia, South Carolina, community. After interviewing select families, the curriculum is tailored to meet the needs of each child.
With her sales significantly impacted, Roberts found support from her alma mater, Benedict College, at a local flea market. Earlier this year, while selling shirts at the event, she was approached by a Benedict faculty member who had noticed her Benedict alumna facemask. Roberts was then invited to set up as a vendor at a pop-up shop occurring at the historically Black college’s bookstore to celebrate women-owned businesses.
The pop-up shop event was an introduction to the campus bookstore’s new entrepreneurial space. Roberts sold both Benedict apparel as well as allowed customers to design their own shirts.
“It gave us the opportunity to have a place to offer our products without a huge overhead fee,” says Roberts. “The [community] loved the diversity and hands-on experience with their merchandise. You have vendors that you can actually talk to and bring your vision to life.”
Many of the other participating retailers were affiliated with the Benedict College Women’s Business Center (BCWBC), which was launched in 2020 to provide counseling, classes, feedback on business plans and other resources to female entrepreneurs. Roberts, for example, collaborated with BCWBC to onboard student interns to assist with her company’s social media, production and curriculum development.
“We are experiencing unprecedented historical times on many fronts,” says Cheryl Salley, director of the BCWBC, in a statement. “It is at this time that we must collectively act to make a difference like never before. … The primary focus of the BCWBC is to work directly with these businesses that have historically experienced more social and economic disparities in comparison to their counterparts.”
Finding community solutions
According to research from the University of California at Santa Cruz, there were more than one million Black-owned businesses within the United States in February. Months later, the number has decreased by 41% with the closure of 440,000 Black businesses. Comparably, 17% of White-owned businesses closed over the same period, according to research from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Benedict officials saw an opportunity to repurpose its bookstore space to operate a small business retail incubator for students, alumni and the local community.
Since faculty had recently moved to an open-source model to help lower the cost of attendance for students, there wasn’t much reason to maintain a bookstore, and officials saw an opportunity to help address the entrepreneurship void in the community.
The store was emptied out, with designated spots for Benedict merchandise on one side and sections for businesses to set up on the other.
“It made sense to repurpose the space to align with one of the college’s strategic directives which is to implement initiatives to promote enterprise development and build institutional capacity within Benedict College and the surrounding community,” says Dr. Tracy Dunn, dean of Benedict’s Tyrone Adam Burroughs School of Business and Entrepreneurship.
To publicize the repurposed bookstore — now rebranded as “The BestofBC Marketplace!” — the institution held a pop-up event and hosted informational sessions on campus during a week-long celebration of entrepreneurship that included pitch competitions and games for students in April.
Preparing Students for Business Ownership
For the rest of the 2020-21 academic year, two business student interns operated the marketplace and were responsible for selling college paraphernalia to the campus community.“Students who participated in this internship experience not only had first-hand experience in operating a retail establishment, but they developed career competencies like professionalism, leadership, teamwork and technology skills,” says Dunn.
Applications for permanent vendors will become available this fall. Two selected student businesses will be awarded kiosk spaces and a number of community and alumni businesses will be invited into the retail space to set up shop for one calendar year. To be eligible, the businesses must sell items related to clothing, apparel, cosmetics, shower gel, soap, mugs, jewelry and novelty items.
“Whether operating the bookstore as an intern or selling their business’s goods through The BESTofBC Marketplace, the goal is for students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real world circumstances,” says Dunn. “Through The Marketplace, they have the opportunity to exercise their accounting, finance, marketing, management and communication skills in a meaningful way.”
Benedict’s campus is also home to a student-run barber and beauty shop, Tiger Cutz, which has been closed due to COVID-19 but is looking forward to reopening soon.
“Entrepreneurial skills like creative problem solving, communication skills and goal setting with an emphasis on discipline specific knowledge like financial, marketing, and human resource management are transferable to any context,” she adds. “Furthermore, as the world economy continues to evolve, the gig economy is expected to thrive post-pandemic. Student entrepreneurs will be well-positioned to adapt.”
This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.