Given reportedly high rates of unemployment in the Bronx and citywide and with few new job openings on the horizon, entrepreneurship and self-employment could become an increasingly important pathway for low-income.
Sensing this, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) held a policy symposium on Sept. 24 called “Encouraging and Supporting Low-Income Entrepreneurship in the Bronx.” At the event, business owners and Councilman Ritchie Torres discussed minorities, employment and entrepreneurship.
Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at Center for an Urban Future moderated the event. He was joined by Majora Carter, president of the Majora Carter Group and founder of Boogie Down Grind in Hunts Point; Hector Castillo Carvajal, founder of Don Carvajal Café; Connie Evans, president and CEO of Association for Enterprise Opportunity, the national trade association for micro-business representing over 1,700 practitioners and advocates in the U.S.; Kerry McLean, vice president of community development at WHEDco and Joann Poe, founder of NYC’s Best Dressed Cupcakes.
“How can we say we are supporting Black and brown entrepreneurship if we know we are not setting them up to play on a real playing field,” Carter said.
She stressed that people need access to capital. Yet, throughout the borough there seems to be more check cashing places than banks. Carter questioned how Bronxites would be able to get loans if there are no financial institutions in their neighborhoods.
The event emphasized that Bronx residents should learn about organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Society, which helps people when starting a business.
“It’s meeting people where they are and giving them the tools to succeed,” she explained.
She pointed out how during COVID-19 white business owners managed to increase their wealth while working at home, but by and large, people of color were not achieving the same level of success.
“How about we acknowledge that this is an issue and we work to create opportunities to fix it,” she said.
One resident who found success as an entrepreneur was Carvajal. In April 2019, the 23-year-old launched Don Carvajal Café in honor of his grandfather. His product is currently in 42 stores, three supermarkets and one coffee shop.
He began selling coffee out of his dorm at the University of Rochester but soon expanded. Eventually, he opened a coffee bean roasting location in Long Island City and an administrative office in Hunts Point.
“It was a very interesting path,” he recalled. “I’ve always liked entrepreneurship I liked being self sufficient.”
While he was turned down by many places, he did his research, kept a positive attitude and kept at it.
“I was the only kid in NYC with credit and a license,” he said. “It was really trial and error.”
Evans knew firsthand about helping women and people of color in the business world. In 1986, she founded the Women’s Self-Employment Project, the first and largest urban micro-business development organization in the U.S.
Evans felt women and people of color could find succeed if given the right tools. She noted the fastest way to wealth is through self-employment, but people must know about banking, accounting, networking and having access to capital.
“The reality is thinking systematically about how you provide all the support for individuals,” Evans commented.
As an employee of WHEDco, McLean said that she saw people struggle on a daily basis. She said WHEDco hasd programs that help people who don’t have credit but many don’t utilize them.
Furthermore, most financial institutions rely on the internet social media to reach people, but they must realize that many residents do not have Wi-Fi.
“We need to find ways to tell more community members about services that are available,” she said.
McLean noted that having mainly check cashing places throughout the borough hurts people financially. She expressed hope that Amalgamated and Chase Banks in the west Bronx would be able to stay open.
“It’s really kind of appalling when some of them [banks] are leaving when we really need them,” she remarked.
The second part of the program featured Councilman Torres chatting with Jonathan Bowles, executive director at Center for an Urban Future. Torres noted that from 2012 to 2017 the Bronx was the only borough that saw no growth in business.
“You have to imagine the situation has only gotten exponentially worse,” he said.
The councilman felt that “systemic racism” was a factor that prevented Black and brown people from gaining capital and creating successful businesses.
Torres also said it is a misconception that everyone must go to a four-year college. Those schools saddle people with debt for years. Instead, teens should be given the option of trade school.
He emphasized that the city, state and federal governments must invest in communities of color.
“Here in the Bronx we feel abandoned by big banks,” Torres stated.