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How Black brands are finding success with major retailers

By Katrina Louis July 6, 2021

Be Rooted founder Jasmin Foster. Photo courtesy of Be Rooted

Although Black-owned businesses represent a small fraction of the retail industry, they account for the fastest-growing category of small businesses.

Planners and journals were a ritual for Jasmin Foster growing up. A new planner signaled a fresh start, and journals held dreams that she hoped to someday make a reality.

In her search for stationery, even into adulthood, it was common for Foster to walk down shopping aisles and see shelves devoid of culturally relevant products.

“I was waiting for a brand that I felt like was truly representative of women of color,” she said. “Instead of waiting, in 2020, I said, why not start it myself?”

The 31-year-old Charlotte resident launched her online stationery brand, Be Rooted, last June. Initially, she started it as a side hustle to her 9-to-5 as head of sales and business development for the multicultural beauty brand, Urban Skin Rx. By March, it was just as legitimate as her main job once her “Hustle Harder” and “Guide Your Spirit” journals debuted on shelves at Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers.

The U.S. retail industry has 8,753 Black-owned businesses, according to the 15 Percent Pledge, a campaign that’s calling on national retailers to commit at least 15% of shelf space to Black businesses to match the country’s nearly 15% Black population.

Foster, a former buyer for Target and Amazon, is one of the small-business owners benefiting from various pledges by major retailers to go beyond public statements to advance racial equity. More companies are bumping up resources dedicated to Black-owned brands after last summer’s social justice movement highlighted glaring inequities.

Mooresville-based Lowe’s carved out $30 million in grants for minority-owned businesses across the country. It also teamed up with Daymond John of ABC’s “Shark Tank” to help expand the company’s supplier diversity.

In April, Target announced a commitment to spend more than $2 billion with Black-owned businesses by the end of 2025. Part of its efforts includes adding products from more than 500 Black businesses to its shelves and website.

Christina Hennington, executive vice president and chief growth officer at Target, said the initiative represents a significant economic opportunity for hundreds of Black-owned companies.

“We have a rich history of working with diverse businesses, but there’s more we can do to spark change across the retail industry, support the Black community and ensure Black guests feel welcomed and represented when they shop at Target,” she said in the April 7 announcement.

It’s a relationship game

Although Black-owned businesses represent a small fraction of the retail industry, they account for the fastest-growing category of small businesses, says Joann Hill, office of business development chief at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA).

MBDA and U.S. Black Chambers are some of the organizations collaborating with e-commerce giant Amazon on its new Black Business Accelerator (BBA) that launched last month. The $150-million investment over the next four years is targeting barriers to access and helping to build sustainable growth for Black sellers in Amazon’s marketplace.

Charlotte-based companies Playtime Edventures and Jayla’s Heirlooms are among the program participants that will receive financial assistance, marketing support, business guidance and mentorship.

Pittsboro resident Joshua Esnard was a participant in the BBA’s pilot program. The 34-year-old is the inventor behind The Cut Buddy, a tool the St. Lucian immigrant accidentally created as a teenager that allows people to trim their hairline and beard at home.

His relationship with Amazon dates back to early 2016 — shortly after he patented the product and launched the company — when a representative walked him through features to succeed as a seller on the platform. After an influencer using The Cut Buddy garnered 12 million views on YouTube, Esnard quickly went from selling five to 10 units per day to 400 units a day, becoming a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon.

It attracted attention of “Shark Tank” TV producers. He appeared on season 9 of the series in 2017, where he pitched a 10% stake in his company for $300,000. After two offers, Esnard went with investor Daymond John — known best as co-founder of the 1990s and 2000s streetwear brand, FUBU — for $300,000 and a 20% stake. By the end of 2019, Esnard had sold more than 500,000 units.

“To this day, even when I talk to big retailers, the performance metrics that I did on Amazon are a basis of the conversation,” he told me during a recent interview.

The Cut Buddy saw another surge in popularity when Covid-19 shut down barbershops and people took to self-grooming. In addition to Amazon, The Cut Buddy product line also is available at Walmart, and Esnard says he’s in talks to get shelf space in Target stores in 2022.

For Foster and her Be Rooted stationery brand, she explained that while the goal may be getting on retailers’ shelves, challenges still exist for business owners now managing higher volumes of products.

“The week after I launched at Target, my domestic factory called me up and said they could no longer fulfill my orders — my domestic factory does all my website orders and thankfully not my Target orders,” she said.

She quickly scrambled with her team to secure another domestic supplier, but it left them without inventory for two months.

“That was probably the biggest hurdle for me because, in this moment of success, I wasn’t able to capitalize on it as much as I would have loved to because I was solving a sourcing issue,” she said.

Esnard also spoke of logistical hardships that come with being a solo decision-maker. [He employs three part-time workers, but they’re not involved with sales and logistics.] He’s also dealt with infringement issues and shipping delays out of his control. A supportive partnership with a retailer, he said, can help a new company navigate some of those challenges.

Beyond the moment

Retailers spending directly with Black businesses can have a trickle-down effect to economically empower Black communities, says Aurora James, creator of the 15 Percent Pledge.

“What we see time over time is that female founders and also people of color who are business owners put money back into their community when they make it,” she told NPR during a June 2020 interview. “When you empower business owners and allow them to spend money in ways that make sense, that’s so much more sustainable to me than just a one-time donation.”

Esnard expressed his excitement to see how shelf space changes over the next few years. He predicts Black brands getting acquired by larger companies will also be part of the equation — which he doesn’t believe is a problem as long as that brand keeps true to its mission.

“Even if there wasn’t backing from retailers putting money into it, I think there’s a new kind of entrepreneur that is going to be very fierce to big companies in the future,” he said.

Esnard continued, “That’s why you’re seeing companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever acquiring brands. If we were to be independent with our genius, we take away market share from them, so it’s something beautiful happening right now.”

His measure of success: Black brands representing 50% of retail shelf space.

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