Queens Borough President Donovan Richards launched a new initiative in honor of Black Business Month by hosting its first fair for Black business owners to showcase their services and products in borough hall’s Helen Marshall Cultural Center on Monday, Aug. 2.

“Black New Yorkers make up 24% of our city’s population with just 2% of the city’s businesses being Black owned,” said Richards in his speech. “There’s a tremendous potential for more Black-owned businesses to start and grow. We are creating equitable opportunities to advance Black entrepreneurship.”

This was the first real event held in the cavernous space this year, said the BP’s staff, since the pandemic’s derailment of regular activities. It was co-sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (M/WBE), the Queen’s Chamber of Commerce, Queens Economic Development Core, and Small Business Services (SBS) Black Enterprise Initiatives.

The huge theater hall bustled with consumers and business owners at their tables, working hard to network or sell their wares. 

Dance companies, like the Edge School of the Arts (ESOTA) and Devore Dance Center, proudly said they follow the legacy of famed Queens dancer and choreographer Bernice Johnson.

There were e-commerce coffee sellers, yogis, cooks, teamakers, skincare gurus and even jiu jitsu instructors promoting health and wellness in the community.

Richards said he wasn’t surprised by the wave of holistic entrepreneurs at the event. He said the pandemic created an “awakening” in the community that inspired people to start using natural products or eating better, more healthy options locally. 

Serenity Nail Polish is headed by Jasmine Phinex and her 4-year-old CEO daughter, Serenity. Phinex said they started the vegan nail polish brand because they were concerned about the harmful chemicals that can seep into the nail bed with traditional polishes.

Melissa Bernard, owner of The Parent Bar and all-natural SKKIN Collection, said the pandemic encouraged her to get over her “fear of starting” last October and commit to being a resource for parents and students that wanted to focus on health and skin care. She was inspired to create her oil products after battling her daughter’s extreme case of eczema and not wanting to subject the 3-month-old to steroids.

“As we emerge from this COVID pandemic. It makes us really, really happy and pleased that the Queen’s Chamber of Commerce helped support all businesses, but especially Black owned businesses that were disproportionately hurt more than almost any other segment over the last 18 months. Period,” said Thomas Gretch, president and CEO of the Queen’s Chamber of Commerce.

“If and when another pandemic hits our city, we won’t be overwhelmed the way we were last year,” said Richards, “We are living through a pandemic and economic crises that has also brought about transformative opportunity.” 

TAFÈ Coffee Brand Owner Charles Reeves, 26, who’s company delivers Mississippi-sourced coffee beans on a subscription basis door-to-door, noted that the pandemic in some ways forced his online sales to grow because people were not only more caffeinated but staying home more. 

Keynote speaker Gregg Bishop, the former commissioner of the department of SBS, wrapped up the night as a “civilian” he joked. 

Bishop stressed the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses and Black and Brown communities, finding government resources to support Black-owned businesses, and closing the racial-wealth gap.

“This country has a ugly history, from the beginning of slavery, and some folks don’t want us to talk about it,” said Bishop in his speech. “Why support Black-owned businesses, because we want to help transfer that wealth, and access to capital is difficult at best.” 

Bishop said that the city’s budget could benefit from expanding the small business sector and companies must be held accountable when it comes to M/WBEs. He said it was startling how many corporations rode the coattails of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, but many didn’t track the concrete steps they made to help the Black community.

Richards said he pledged that his office, which presides over corporate land use recommendations, is dedicated to requiring a minimum of 30% M/WBE projects be included in proposals. 

He said in partnerships with JetBlue, for example, they will require reporting on where local hires are going and track M/WBE procurement contracts as part of their oversight efforts in the long-term.

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