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Community support helps entrepreneurs turn ‘no’ into success

A panel of four Black entrepreneurs sit on stage

A panel of Black entrepreneurs kick off a four-part series with the Kansas City Public Library about how to make entrepreneurship “IDEAL” for all.

Recently the Kansas City Public Library kicked off a new four-part series on how to make entrepreneurship in Kansas City more inclusive, diverse, equitable, accessible, and liberating – more “IDEAL” for all. As a sponsor for the series, we are pleased to welcome the first panel discussion, which included entrepreneurs:

  • Kemet Coleman, a local musician and part owner of Vine Street Brewing Co. in Kansas City’s historic Jazz District – the city’s first brewery run by Black entrepreneurs.
  • La’Nae Robinson and La’Nesha Frazier, sisters who co-own midtown bookstore Bliss Books and Wine, which was featured by Oprah Magazine as one of “127 Black-Owned Bookstores in America That Amplify the Best in Literature.”
  • Chelsey M, founder of Kansas City Black Owned, a for-profit organization that provides an online platform and support services to help the scalability and visibility of Black Owned business, moderated the discussion.

M said she heard it said that small businesses thrive when a community rallies around and supports them. She said not only is that true, but it’s so important – especially for someone like her who didn’t grow up in Kansas City. “…Moving here, not really knowing anyone, the community is just like, ‘Come on in. Let me give you a hug,’ especially in the entrepreneurship realm and these incubators and ecosystems,” M said. “And the reason why I think KC Black Owned and Vine Street Brewing, and Bliss, we’re just thriving is because of this community that kind of backs us up.”

Still, there are barriers to entrepreneurial success, especially for Black business owners as systemic issues around access to capital and municipal red tape make building a business harder than it should be.

M: Talk to us about capital. What was your experience with your businesses? 

Robinson: It’s not readily accessible, and it’s a lot of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ … It can be discouraging, and I thought it was just us. It’s not just us.

Frazier: We’re 100% self-funded. We did a Kickstarter and that’s where our community kicked in and we were just like, ‘Oh, people really do like us. They really want this store,’ and so we raised the money that we needed for this brick and mortar through our community and through our outreach.

Coleman: One of the biggest reasons why less than 1% of breweries in the United States are owned by individuals of African descent or other kind of marginalized demographics is the fact that the startup costs are astronomical. It costs at least a half a million dollars to start the average brewery. So, when it comes to having access to capital and things of that nature, that’s simply not an option for a lot of us. How we got strategic about that is I’ve been networking since high school out in these streets of KC on both sides of Troost and so, when it comes to how we set everything up, we essentially were able to put our little pennies in a little pot and then took that to the bank and they let us take a little bit out.

I would say we’ve been blessed just by my access to individuals that can help us along the way, especially when it comes to Enterprise Bank – little shout out to you guys – but I will say it is insane the amount of cost. Because we’re dealing with manufacturing, heavy industrial materials and things to get us to a point where we can even make the product. So, it’s a huge struggle and this is definitely my third or fourth time trying to start a brewery, so it’s one that I’ve had to deal with every time I tried to do it, for sure.

M: So, let’s talk about KC. Do you see them addressing any systemic barriers or promoting equity?

Robinson: You dealt with the red tape.

Frazier: We had a very hard time getting our liquor license. It took over a year to do so, and it was just basically based off of some outdated ordinances. And, so, when they first sent the letter, it was just like, ‘No.’ That’s what I read.

I talked to a lot of people and they were just like, ‘The only way that you can …’ and I was just like, ‘Hold my wine …’ I’m in city hall, in their face all the time. We had a pop-up twice there, and everybody’s coming to the booth and they’re just like, ‘Hi … This is great.’ I said, ‘Give me a liquor license.’

I imagined so many people that got that ‘no’ letter, and then they stopped, and they didn’t move forward with their dream because they just immediately got that hard no. I was like, ‘If I have to be the Guinea pig for this, if I’m the one that has to go through all the red tape, if I have to sit through all of these meetings and the city hall and all this stuff, so be it, but we’re going to push past this ‘no’ and we’re going to change it, so other people can then apply to be able to make their dreams come true.

It took over a year. It took a lot of patience, took a lot of wine, but they ended up changing the ordinance, and now it’s easier for entrepreneurs to follow their dreams.

Coleman: We’re making those steps, but the problem is it’s just not happening fast enough. … I think that we are trending in the right direction. Here we are, standing on one of the bigger platforms here in Kansas City as all African Americans – primarily women of color on the stage – and I think it’s really important that we do celebrate those moments, but I think Kansas City, in general, is at a place where we have this really great opportunity to leverage this spotlight we have right now.

How do we leverage this opportunity to show who we are in our identity?