Starting a business from scratch is not an easy task. New entrepreneurs must provide a sought-after product or service, navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of the digital marketplace, and tackle ancillary tasks related to shipping, branding, sourcing, and sourcing.
Now add to that mix an entrepreneur in the group often referred to as BIPOC (pronounced “bye-pock”) (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and the challenges can multiply. And yet, many overcome all the usual and unique obstacles to creating successful businesses.
BusinessNorth spoke with three BIPOC business owners, all of whom started their businesses in Twin Ports. They’ve each found some pretty sweet successes, but they’ve also faced and broken barriers along the way.
Cal Harris, with his wife, Natalie, opened Superior Waffles last July. From their location inside Superior’s historic New York Building on Tower Avenue, the Harrises create and serve sweet and savory waffles. They have a squad of 14.
Harris, an African-American man, also works full time as an integration specialist for the Duluth Public Schools. He is a member of the boards of Men as Peacemakers and Positive Energy Outdoors. He is a member of the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP and a former President and Vice President of the Twin Ports African American Men’s Caucus.
Business has been booming for the Harrises since day one, with new and exciting initiatives being added all the time. “We’ve been doing a lot of popups,” Harris said. “We were at the Lake Superior Ice Festival, where we used a trailer that we rented from the Oakland Fire Department. We had a really huge turnout. They have also contacted us to do the Proctor Fair and visit the Fairlawn Museum. We added new items to our menu and started partnering with Food Dudes; That has been a new adventure.”
Harris has conquered logistical challenges. “The easy part is making waffles,” he said. “But all the outside forces, like hiring, keeping employees and food shortages, have been tough.”
As you grow your business, you wish there were more BIPOC entrepreneurs to consult locally. “Now I have relationships with other businesses and restaurants, but I would like to be able to connect with other BIPOC business groups,” Harris said. “I wish we had had that in the beginning. For example, when we were building, four construction companies gave us four quotes, ranging from $12,000 to $60,000. is that routine? If we had a business group, we could discuss this kind of thing, recommend contractors, and maybe even set up a grant fund.”
That said, Harris has also felt the support of the community. “I am so thankful and appreciative of the Superior community, both the city leadership and our returning customers.”
Sarah Agaton Howes began custom sewing and beading about 12 years ago while also teaching cultural arts. Agaton Howes, an Anishinaabe woman, opened House of Howes in 2014, later renaming it Heart Berry, the direct English translation of Ode’imin, or strawberry.
When asked to describe Heart Berry, Agaton Howes explained the three facets of his business. “We are a lifestyle brand. We put a contemporary twist on traditional Ojibwe items like earrings and blankets. We also do custom work such as art installations and logos. And I teach cultural art, like moccasin making, at universities, tribal communities, schools, and through Zoom.”
With the help of his mentor, Louie Gong, Agaton Howes learned how to set up a website, take photos, and use technology, including Adobe Illustrator and Zoom. “It has taken a lot of adaptation to teach about Zoom,” he noted. “But, speaking as a native and a woman, I would say that we are quite good at adapting.”
Although she started out as a sole proprietor, Agaton Howes now employs two other people. She is pleased to share that she has taught moccasin-making skills to over 800 students and that she markets woolen blankets, an item of cultural importance. For now, she still operates out of an outbuilding on her property, located in the Fond du Lac Reserve. She sells her items online and hopes to expand into a larger space one day.
“I live in rural Cloquet and shipping has been a challenge,” said Agaton Howes. He also noted that it has been difficult to learn all the new systems to keep his business running. “I accept that I will always be learning, solving problems and adapting every day.”
She, like Harris, wants more local BIPOC mentors in business. “The lack of role models is a huge barrier,” said Agaton Howes. “There are very few native-owned small businesses. Also at the manufacturing level, wool blankets are dominated by non-native companies. For example, many people think that Pendleton is owned by natives, but it is not. There are a lot of misconceptions.”
Over the years, Agaton Howes has received the philanthropic gift from the Waterers Foundation and the Peacemaker Award from Men as Peacemakers. He has also served as a member of the Minnesota Historical Society. She is grateful for the honors and for the work that she has to do. “I feel like I’ve won the ‘artist lottery’ every day.”
Nate Elsey-Williams started Northside Bags like many entrepreneurs do: by experiencing a problem and trying to solve it. Elsey-Williams, now 24, was just 19 and attending a music festival when he found himself dehydrated, separated from his friends and with a dead phone battery.
“Through trial and error, I developed the solar hydration pack,” he explained. “It has a 6.5-watt solar panel with a battery pack and a USB port. It also has a 2.5 liter hydration bladder.
Originally from Virginia, Elsey-Williams was showing off her backpack at trade shows when she was approached by representatives from AlphaMark, a supplier of promotional products in Duluth. She liked his product and offered to help, and Elsey-Williams moved to Duluth to start her business.
Northside Bags, Elsey-Williams said, is one of only two black-owned backpack companies in the United States. He has since returned to Virginia, where he operates his business as an e-commerce brand. However, Northside Bags is available at two Duluth locations: Great Lakes Gear Exchange and Superior Cannabis Company. He is developing a fanny pack to add to his collection.
Some of the challenges to Elsey-Williams’ success are due to her age. “When you’re a small company and you’re as young as I am, it’s a challenge. I didn’t have a lot of money to finance my business, so I still work from nine to five.”
Plus, he said, “There’s not a lot of diversity in Duluth. There are some really great people, but not many people who are like me.”
He’d like to see more people like him hit the trails, with or without a handy solar-powered backpack system. “My mission has always been to bring more black people and all people of color to the outdoor hiking scene,” he said in his business profile.
Elsey-Williams is currently taking business classes and works full time at Custom Ink, a store that sells clothing and promotional items. She has partnered with two other BIPOC business owners: Jasmine Guadalupe, owner of The Hood Hikers based in the Bronx, New York, and Dominique King, founder of the Grow Wild podcast. The three promote each other’s businesses by serving as brand ambassadors.
When these entrepreneurs say they long for more local BIPOC business owners, their perceptions are accurate, according to Carson Gorecki, Northeast regional analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). He provided statistics that illustrate how rare BIPOCs and women-owned business owners are in our area.
According to figures compiled by the Nonemployer Statistics program, which collects data related to the self-employed, independent contractors, and sole proprietors in Minnesota, the share of Black- or African-American-owned businesses with multiple employees was just 1.2% in 2018, the highest number. recent data available. Black or African American-owned businesses without employees (non-employer businesses) accounted for 7.1% of the regional total of all non-employer businesses. Employers who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native represented just 0.3% of the regional totals for both employer and non-employer businesses.
For businesswomen like Sarah Agaton Howes, the numbers are even lower.
“In 2018, BIPOC women-owned businesses represented 4.2% of all businesses in the state and an even smaller proportion of employer businesses,” Gorecki said, adding that it is even lower for indigenous women. “According to these numbers,” she added, “Sarah Agaton Howes represents a group that makes up about 0.1% of all business owners, which makes her very rare.”