Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, has created an initiative called Together We Thrive to help Black-owned businesses strive to accomplish their goals.
“No, yeah, it definitely was a response to the pandemic. You know, they say ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’” says Wright.
United Way of New York City is a non-profit organization that strives to improve the lives of every individual. They provide resources and ensure that every individual lives a comfortable life, especially low-income New Yorkers.
Together We Thrive has brought together organizations and individuals that really understand the Black entrepreneur community and represent them. One of the important things that Together We Thrive offers is resources about gaining capital. They want to help these businesses be able to stay afloat and grow with more than the resources these businesses may be able to find on their own.
As the shutdown started in March, Wright states that she and United Way sprang into action. They were providing things like food and educational resources for children. She recalls small businesses reaching out to the organization asking them what they can do to stay afloat during this social distancing period.
United Way has partnered with BE NYC, among others, which is an initiative to help Black entrepreneurs starting and growing their businesses.
“At the time, the city had launched a kind of research strategy initiative called BE NYC, Black entrepreneur, and their focus was really trying to figure out how to do better quickly,” says Wright. “At the time, and before COVID-19 hit, only 2.5% of all businesses in the city of New York were Black-owned.”
So many businesses weren’t able to stay afloat during the pandemic. Business owners found themselves having to close their businesses. Many had to let go of their employees because there wasn’t a lot of money coming in for them to give their employees a paycheck.
According to a Forbes article, Black businesses were more likely to close than businesses that were owned by white individuals. “Black businesses experienced the most acute decline, with a 41% drop,” the Federal Reserve Bank of New York noted in an August 2020 study.
Together We Thrive is an initiative that is needed right now for Black businesses and owners. It garners a support system for these businesses and sense of relief knowing that there is a way to survive during this pandemic.
“What we’re seeing is a real interest and uptake pretty quickly of Black entrepreneurs saying that they need this,” says Wright. “We were able to immediately deploy really critical services and support to help business owners whether it’s marketing support or helping [business owners] get themselves organized financially so they can access some of the capital and other resources that are out there.”
Wright mentions that this initiative has been such a huge demand. She states that this initiative is growing day by day and it’s having an impact on businesses.
One business owner that Together We Thrive has helped during this pandemic is Shakira Polite. She is one out of the 50 small businesses that Together We Thrive currently supports.
Before the pandemic started, Polite’s main 9-to-5 job was working at Showtime Networks. She was also doing a little bit of freelance work. Her company, Black Bravado, which provides mental health literacy tools for people of color has been around for quite a bit of time, but Polite’s inspiration to change things around was the Black community’s reaction to the killing of Mike Brown in 2014.
“It really called upon me to want to do something impactful beyond my friends, my family, and my direct community,” says Polite. “It was me going through my own personal journeys through therapy and you know wellness practices such as meditation, and it led me to lead Black Bravado in this direction.”
As the pandemic moved with the world, Polite was forced to sit still like everyone else. With her main source of income gone, she was able to look closer at her business and what she had built so far and see how she could take it to the next level.
Polite is not new to owning her own business, but she is new to creating the legitimacy around her business and what it is she really wants to achieve.
“I was doing a lot of work within the community via workshops, open mic night and all of these sorts of things just to show support,” says Polite. “But it wasn’t until the pandemic that I realized that I can be passionate about something but also make it a legitimate business.”
Polite thought about the tools she would need to do so. In 2020, Black Bravado finally became a legitimate business. She got an LLC and everything that she needed to move her business to the next step. Her way of thinking and moving with her passion in this direction and setting herself up to be legitimate created room for more opportunities.
“Oftentimes people have skills,” says Polite. “They have things that they can do, but they don’t understand that when you set yourself up to be legitimate, you can get access to things like Together We Strive.”
By figuring out that she could create a business during the pandemic with a passion that she had and still have a way to create a source of income for herself, Polite realized that she had to get herself and business in order. Polite believes that if she didn’t have this mindset, she wouldn’t be able to benefit so greatly from Together We Thrive.
Polite found out about Together We Thrive from a program that Facebook was launching called Career Connections. She explained that they take recent college graduates, most of them falling under the minority bracket. They will train these students in specific social media marketing graphic design backgrounds up to Facebook and Instagram standard. Polite goes on to say that they then also take business owners who are also within the minority group and pair them with these trained individuals for a paid summer internship.
“Having access to something like this as a business owner was amazing,” says Polite. “It’s very difficult for me to wear many hats to manage and engage with social media but also trying to manage strategic partnership and think about creative concepts.”
Polite mentions that there are so many moving parts when talking about building a thriving business from the ground up. However, when she was presented with this opportunity through Together We Thrive, she didn’t think twice about it because having a social media manager who was trained by the very platforms that she used was a no brainer. It was even better because someone who was trained at that level wouldn’t be someone she would necessarily be able to afford where she is at right now.
Through Together We Thrive, Polite was able to connect with a business mentor. She was able to partner with someone from Pace University who was able to look at her business from a different perspective and not from an emotional place like she may have because they are here to get results and give advice. They are teaching her the things that matter in terms of how she can get her business to where she wants it to go.
“They are teaching me things I know I would learn eventually, but now I don’t have to go through the hardships because I have a professional who’s able to give me that support,” says Polite. “I wouldn’t have known about this type of program if it hadn’t been for Together We Thrive.”