Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Tiffany Blackman took the pandemic as an opportunity to elevate Women of Color-owned brands that she was introduced to during that time, eventually opening a shop in downtown Battle Creek to help herself and other Women of Color entrepreneurs get their products onto store shelves.
In July that shop–Bread & Basket
–will celebrate its second anniversary beating the odds, but not the financial uncertainty that disproportionately impacts many Black women-owned businesses.
“I have debt,” she says. “The store requires inventory. That’s one of the pieces as a small business owner and black business owner that I struggle with. With a typical boutique or retail shop, it costs between $20,000 and $25,000 just for inventory.”
Black women continue to face credit market challenges that create barriers to business ownership, according to Black Womenomics: Equalizing Entrepreneurship
, a report authored by Goldman Sachs.
Tiffany Blackman is seen at her store in downtown Battler Creek.
“Across all industries, a larger share of Black-owned businesses have inadequate initial capital. Similarly, Black entrepreneurs are 20% less likely to fund their startups with bank business loans and depend heavily on personal credit cards as the primary sources of startup capital,” the report says.
Blackman refers to this method of financing as “bootstrapping” and it’s what she chose to do after the financial institution she works with said they would need to see financial information she did not yet have.
“With the financing, I decided to bootstrap which literally means you pick yourself up by your own bootstraps,” she says. “I took my own capital and made it happen. The initial investment in Year One was about $15,000. I was trying to find access to capital, but the credit union I work with said that anything that had to do with loans for small businesses, they’d have to see two years of financials. That meant getting no access to any capital for two years. I’ve got almost six months more of banking until I can request a loan.”
Using a combination of money she had saved up and proceeds from the sales of her products through social media and at a pop-up shops she had at BC Cargo
and the Convention and Visitors Bureau
, she was able to cover the rent for her brick-and-mortar location and purchase inventory.
Those pop-up events in 2021 “proved to me that people would buy my products. I sold $1,500 of product in one month.”
Tiffany Blackman sorts items on a shelf at her store in downtown Battler Creek.
Those products included all-natural bath and body products that she sells which are now sold alongside lotions, body butters, scrubs, lip balms, hair pomades, oils, and beard balm, some of which are made by hand by Michigan-based entrepreneurs who don’t have brick and mortar locations and others that are made by entrepreneurs from throughout the United States. Her store also stocks specialty foods, housewares, and gifts that are produced by entrepreneurs.
“I have a majority focus on Women of Color-owned businesses. I buy from them first, then minority-owned and everyone else after that,” Blackman says. “I have products created in Battle Creek by businesses owned by Black women and I also carry products from white male barbers in Kalamazoo.”
At any given time her store is stocked with more than 40 different brands of products.
“I realized if I only tried to source products from the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo region, I would not be able to own a brick-and-mortar store. I thought about how I could bring to Battle Creek things we’ve been missing,” Blackman says. “So many people feel like they need to leave our city to get what they’re looking for. I wanted to change that narrative so that people could find what they were looking for in downtown Battle Creek. Literally. that’s what drove me to start Bread & Basket. I realized there was a gap in the market in our community.”
As she continues to fill that gap, she also is bringing other Black women business owners along, in addition to other minority entrepreneurs, by sharing with them what they will need to do to become successful in their own right. She does this as a Business Coach with Northern Initiatives
which offers free services including access to a business coach like Blackman and training on finances, marketing, and management.
Jamila Mullen says, an "important motivation for starting my business was to provide healing therapy for the black community who suffer from underlying illnesses, various health conditions & carry heavy levels of stress & pain."
One of the women she coached is Jamila Mullen, owner of Mela’s Peaceful Raine Wellness Massag
e in Battle Creek. Mullen says Blackman’s expertise was invaluable to her as she sought to open her own massage business which she did in 2019.
“I was in a business start-up program to help create businesses and get them started and (Tiffany) came in as a consultant to help build prototypes and gather information about what type of clients we want to serve and helped us create a business plan and execute it. I started in that program one month before I was due to open the business,” Mullen says. “Owning my own business was really new to me and I wanted to be successful and have all the necessary tools. She was there to give me extra support. After being in business for three years, she’s still there to give me support.”
As a Black woman, Mullen is a minority in an industry where the majority of massage therapists are White.
which estimates demographics and statistics for massage therapists in the United States, says that of the more than 79,857 massage therapists currently employed in the United States, 6.1 percent are Black. The most common ethnicity of massage therapists is White (60.5%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (17.0%), and Asian (11.0%).
Jamila Mullen opened Mela's Peaceful Raine Wellness with mentorship help from Tiffany Blackman.
Mullen says she was the only Black individual in a massage school in Battle Creek. She says this was not going to dissuade her from reaching her goal of opening her own therapeutic massage business.
“An important motivation for starting my business was to provide healing therapy for the black community who suffer from underlying illnesses, various health conditions & carry heavy levels of stress and pain,” she says, adding that she hopes her perseverance will encourage other Black women who want to become massage therapists.
“It’s getting a lot better now,” she says. “I notice a lot more Black women and people getting into this industry. There were not many Black women I could go to for help or advice. As I’ve been putting myself out there and creating videos, I notice more Black ladies getting into the massage industry. Sharing my business and profession with the public may have gotten more exposure to the industry in the Black community.”
Like Blackman, Mullen financed the start-up of her business with her own money. She had saved up tips from a job she had at a massage franchise in Battle Creek and money from her tax return.
“I was working and saving all of my tips for at least six to eight months and once I received my tax return, I had $3,500 and that’s what I used to purchase a table and supplies and pay rent for the space I’m leasing,” Mullen says.
Once her business was up and running, she began applying for business lines of credit to cover the cost of additional supplies and other items she needed to keep the business running. She says she ran into a lot of resistance from her financial institution.
“It was difficult to get the funding I needed,” Mullen says.
The Womenomics report says that “More equitable access to credit and small business loans with reasonable repayment conditions (e.g. lower rates of interests and fees, and access) and to equity investments would reduce dependence on more expensive forms of credit and use of personal savings, factors that often inhibit the success of Black women-owned businesses. This would likely increase the number of Black women entrepreneurs, support existing small businesses, and grow long-term wealth.”
The path to business ownership
Blackman says she never had plans to open a retail shop. That all changed with the onset of the pandemic in March, 2020, which forced her to choose between continuing her job with a local foundation or staying home to be with her four children to help them navigate online learning.
Tiffany Blackman’s store is located on East Michigan Avenue in downtown Battle Creek.
“By the Fall I really felt torn between deciding how I was going to manage to work at a full-time job and stay home to manage my children’s virtual schooling,” says Blackman, a single mom. “I had to make a choice to resign from the full-time job because I had four children in school. It’s crazy because I never had to choose between working to provide for my family and having the need to stay home and providing that way for my family.”
She says she had “grandiose” plans to support herself and her children on her life savings while she was home with them. That didn’t exactly pan out the way she thought it would. She drew unemployment for less than one year and earned some money working as a Business Coach with Morning Light and Second Muse, organizations focused on helping entrepreneurs, which are no longer operating in Battle Creek.
Tiffany Blackman shows her daughter Kendall, 9, how to apply custom stamps to boxes in her store.
“When you have the responsibility of raising and supporting a family you don’t have time to dream,” Blackman says. “The pandemic gave me the time to dream.”
Since 2019 she had been training small business owners and entrepreneurs and her focus shifted to how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion wrapped around entrepreneurship.
“I was dealing with a lot of minority-owned businesses and helping them to launch their businesses through various programs,” Blackman says. “What I felt like I was doing was helping to train small business owners to launch their idea but then there was a gap between launch and how to be successful. They still were selling from their front porch to family and friends but there was no broad effort to get them on store shelves. You have to have capital, connections, and capacity to get into a Target or Meijer.”
Knowing that many of these Black female entrepreneurs couldn’t get their products on the shelves of these major retailers is what convinced Blackman to offer a space where they would have shelf space.
After researching the feasibility of different models including, retail, boutique, or a public market, she chose a public market concept because it allowed her the flexibility to offer a seasonal product lineup.
“It’s all about connecting local brands to the community and providing multiple services,” Blackman says. “There was that missing piece and overarching reach to open a store where these brands would be accessible. I am truly a cause-based business and my goal is to make sure hyper-local brands are lifted up all year ‘round and Women of Color Black-owned brands are lifted up and are accessible.”