By Jimmy Magahern
Ashley La Russa cringes a little every time she hears the term “minority-owned business.”
“When I saw your email about doing a story on minority-owned businesses, I was just like, ‘Ugh, we gotta phase that term out!’” she said, with a laugh. “We see it often in business, because traditionally it’s been used. But even that term itself is sort of giving a level of class to race. And as I speak to other business owners of color, they say, ‘That just simply means non-white.’”
La Russa is the creator of the Tucson-based website Blax Friday, an online directory of Black-owned businesses in Arizona that began as a simple spreadsheet in the summer of 2020, after her event management company, Roux Events, was sidelined during the pandemic.
“It started as an initiative of finding all the Black-owned businesses in Tucson so that we could support them,” said La Russa, who’d previously worked in stage management with the Arizona Theater Company and had seen a lot of performing artists lose their livelihoods during the shutdown.
The website — which has since expanded to an app and includes a social marketing and promotions arm sponsoring community events like the upcoming Juneteenth Jam at the Hotel Congress on June 17 — now lists Black-owned businesses all around Arizona.
“We have a goal to reach 2,000 by the end of this year,” La Russa said.
Although the businesses listed on Blax Friday all fall under the large umbrella designation of minority business enterprises, or MBEs — that’s a term dating back to the formation of the federal Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) in 1969 — and it encompasses any business that’s at least 51% owned, operated and controlled by what’s considered an ethnic minority.
But that classification casts a wide net, taking in businesses owned and operated by African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Hasidic Jews and Pacific Islanders. And that collective group of business owners can no longer be considered a minority.
According to the MBDA, there are currently over 9.2 million minority-owned businesses in the United States, employing more than 8 million people and generating more than $1.8 trillion in revenue annually.
“It just goes to show the system that we’re still operating under,” said La Russa. “The main American business story is still a white story, and then everyone else is just ‘the other.’ When in fact, each group of people of color have their own situation and story, and their own path.”
The term does have its utility. The MBDA was primarily established to incentivize MBEs and women-owned businesses to bid on publicly awarded construction or service contracts, and in 2021 the agency was made permanent under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That year, the MBDA helped minority-owned businesses secure more than $2 billion in contracts. And the agency continues to connect MBEs to private lenders, including banks, mutual funds and investors. With the agency’s support, minority-owned businesses gained access to $708 million in capital in 2021.
But La Russa said a lot of the support from government entities mainly amounts to providing business consulting services to minority business owners, which she says can often sound condescending and patronizing, not to mention generalizing.
“We’re not all the same! When it comes to our indigenous community, there needs to be a conversation about tribal nations. When it comes to our Latino and Latina community, there needs to be a conversation about breaking down barriers and translation. And then when it comes to our African American and Asian individuals, these are people who are still reckoning with travesties that have happened throughout history.
“And so to just say, ‘Let’s have a big group meeting and make it all right’ — no, this is going to take more of an investment of time and communication and allyship. Rather than telling us all, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you,’ we really need partners asking each group, ‘What can we do together?’”
Indeed, in Tucson alone, there are parallel support systems to Blax Friday for each group of non-white business owners in the city. For the indigenous community, there’s Rez Rising and Change Labs, headed by Navajo Nation advocate Heather Fleming. For the Asian and Pacific Islander community, there’s the Pan Asian Community Alliance Center. And for Tucson’s 46% Hispanic population, there’s the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, recently expanded as an affiliate of the Southeast Arizona Hispanic Chamber.
Even among that group, there are distinct identities. “A lot of Latinos in the community, they don’t like the term Hispanic,” said chamber president Rob Elias. “They prefer Chicano or Latino or Mexican. If I’m speaking to a group that’s part of the older generation in our community, I’ll probably use Latino. The one word that is seemingly disliked by the majority in our community is the term Latinx.”
Elias said that’s a relatively recent term likely invented by white progressives so as not to appear gender-biased, but it doesn’t fly in the groups he addresses. “They’re like, ‘Man, do you really need to give us another label?’” he said, laughing.
Elias said he prefers to think of his organization as one working toward making a more equitable economy for everybody.
“One of the things we hear almost daily is, ‘Oh, I’d love to join your organization, you guys do amazing things, but I’m not Hispanic.’ And we’re like, ‘Well, you don’t have to be!’” he said. “We believe that big ideas designed with intentionality and care will create a stronger community that includes everyone.”
That’s not to say each of the groups that fall under the umbrella of minority business enterprises don’t have their own unique challenges and obstacles, however. A 2022 report by the State of Black Arizona, an ASU-funded data collection nonprofit, found that Blacks and Hispanics are about twice as likely as whites to start their businesses with less than $10,000 in capital, largely because they expect to be denied credit, even when they have a good credit history.
And the Native American and Asian American populations each have historically sound reasons for distrusting government programs pledging to assist them. Perhaps most significantly, across the board, the persistent racial wealth gap continues to hamper MBE start-ups.
“We as a people would like to create generational wealth for our families,” Elias said. “And a lot of us don’t have that. That really became apparent coming out of the pandemic, when there were American Rescue Plan dollars coming out and PPP loans. There was all this money that was available to businesses to sustain them through a very difficult time for everybody. But in order to apply for these funds, your finances had to be in order – your books, your accounting practices. That hindered us within the Latino community, because for a lot of us, the practices that were in place were not adequate enough to access those funds.”
For La Russa, she’d like to see more Black-owned businesses with their own physical buildings.
“It’d be great to see more Black-owned businesses and businesses run by people of color have their own brick-and-mortar spaces,” she said. “A lot of the businesses that we list on the directory are all e-commerce, primarily online. And they depend on public markets or pop-up events to sort of make those monthly goals. And if I could just go to downtown Tucson and see at least four or five brick-and-mortar locations run by people of color, that would truly give me a physical sense of progress. That just seems like the ultimate, to be a business owner that owns your own space. We still have a way to go there.”
See Original Article at Inside Tucson Business