Lashae Simmons II speaks with passion and a wealth of knowledge. For the 2010 graduate of Muskegon Catholic Central High School, this is especially the case when discussing her love for educating those in her hometown with ideas and dreams, including those who may lack the resources, connections, and plans to achieve them.
“We’ve been beaten into this impoverished mindset, and we value the look of something rather than the stability of everything,” says Simmons, founder of Black Wall Street Muskegon (BWSM). “I think that’s one of the things that creates that barrier for us to grow.”
With the birth of BWSM in April 2019, Simmons wanted to connect people to one another. While visiting bigger cities in the South, she saw events that showcased entrepreneurs and business-minded professionals. With a bachelor’s degree in business/advertising and promotions from Western Michigan University, Simmons wanted to bring this concept to Muskegon and be a connector for professionals trying to expand their business and those needing resources and services.
The way Simmons describes it, the focus was all about economics, and supply and demand. “I saw there was a need and there were some suppliers and people that had a demand,” she explains, adding that it was all about “just putting them all in one space.”
A runaway success
Simmons says she created the BWSM page on Facebook one evening and, when she awoke the next morning, more than 1,000 people had joined the group. “It grew legs before I was ready to run,” she says. She had to immediately take the steps to make BWSM a nonprofit and start making connections between those who visited the page with requests for various professional services and needs.
The biggest BWSM event thus far is the upcoming second annual Black Business Expo, which will bring vendors and the community together. It’s set for June 18 at the new VanDyk Mortgage Convention Center in Downtown Muskegon.
The inaugural Black Business Expo, scheduled for 2020 to celebrate BWSM’s first anniversary, was delayed for a year by the pandemic. Last year’s event was a success, and the 2022 event will be bigger and better, having a sold-out symposium and an increase in vendors, from 60 to 82.
The Black Business Expo is set up in two parts. The educational component in the morning (the symposium) features a panel of entrepreneurs educating people on how to transform their ideas into full-blown businesses and covering the behind-the-scenes legalities and requirements. The second part is the vendor showcase, which takes place from 1-6:30 p.m. It will feature local businesses in areas that range from food, real estate, and jewelry to event planning, skincare, and therapy. There will also be a microgrant giveaway and a makeup competition in which the winner has the chance to be awarded $1,000.
A financial adviser with a passion for assisting black and brown people to improve their financial literacy, Simmons says the city of Muskegon generously purchased tickets for the symposium that were donated to those in the community interested in attending.
Simmons says she funded many of the BWSM events when she was getting started, but support has grown for the four events the nonprofit sponsors each year. In addition to the expo, these include the Back-To-School Bash, a giveaway for kids returning to school; the Halloween-themed Trunk or Treat; and BWSM’s own Pitch Competition for businesses. With each event, she says, different volunteers come out to support their community.
A mother of two children, Tristan and Khamylle, Simmons has a soft spot for helping kids. She points out that parents can use help, and this has been especially the case during the pandemic. Although raised with her siblings to be self-sufficient, Simmons has experience in this need as she navigated finishing college while caring for her children, who were babies at the time.
The driving force for Simmons to continue with any goal has been the challenge of statistics and being competitive, noting that when people tell her she can’t achieve something, she works even harder to make it happen. Simmons adds that while trying to prove everyone wrong, she discovers that she really wants to prove herself right, which changes the dynamic of her “why.”
Considerations for entrepreneurs
In the long run, she is striving to become a resource to help fund more up-and-coming businesses and return the good in her community that she took with her along her journey. Based on lessons from her own journey, Simmons advises other entrepreneurs to consider the following:
- If you have the idea, do the research, and make sure it is a good idea and a business that is needed. Also, make sure you have the aptitude for it.
- Protect your reputation early, not letting actions from the past come back later in business to haunt you.
- Have no expectations on who will support you. If you focus on who doesn’t have your back, you’re missing who does.
- Just do it and keep doing it every single day.