September 29, 2022

Unitranche

Supportive Business Potential

Black entrepreneurs navigate the business world

There are two things Candice Luter has learned since turning her part-time side hustle, where she sold her hand-crafted wall hangings, mirrors and furniture at local farmer’s markets, into a thriving business now earning national recognition. First, there’s no playbook in business, and sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. Starting in 2019, […]

There are two things Candice Luter has learned since turning her part-time side hustle, where she sold her hand-crafted wall hangings, mirrors and furniture at local farmer’s markets, into a thriving business now earning national recognition. First, there’s no playbook in business, and sometimes you need to take a leap of faith.

Starting in 2019, Ms. Luter sold homemade items on Etsy, an e-commerce platform that sells clothes and decor. Then, she started attracting attention from more prominent retailers, like West Elm and Lulu and Georgia. Soon, the pandemic led more visitors — looking to spruce up their home while COVID-19 forced them inside — to her Etsy pages. Still working part-time, her Etsy sales unexpectedly tripled. 

“When the pandemic hit, I was laid off [from a design firm] like a lot of people,” Ms. Luter said. “I thought I’d just end up going back to work, but they didn’t bring me back. I didn’t have a job, and I’ve never been on the unemployment line before.”

Hairstylists from Mai African Hair Braiding Salon lead a workshop on how to braid Black hair during the inaugural Embody | Embrace celebration in 2020. CREDIT CANDICE SMITH

Sensing no better time than the present, she launched her business, calling it the “perfect time and perfect segue” to explore her passion and forgo the security a regular paycheck offers.

Just two years later, that decision is paying dividends. In February, Ms. Luter co-designed products with Target as part of their Black History Month collection, the first time Target has featured a home decor collection for Black History Month, says Ms. Luter. Four products were sold in 855 stores nationwide, while the rest were sold online. Elements of Black history inspired the pieces.

Despite the success, there was never a grand plan from the beginning.

“I don’t really have an approach to anything that I do, which sounds very reckless, but I’m very transparent with my employees that a lot of things have just been trial and error,” she said, explaining her strategy when first putting her products on Etsy. “I honestly just threw things out there and designed them in a way that resonated with me. It was the right place at the right time.”

Even with success, she finds it difficult to feel completely confident in certain decisions, but she believes business owners need to try their best to acknowledge their value.

“One thing I tell a lot of people is I’ve spent a lot of time within the last nine months to really understand myself, my value and my worth,” she explained. “If you’re a small business person, you’re selling yourself every day, and if you don’t understand what you bring to the table, that goes into how you price yourself and your products. You’re basically putting a piece of yourself out there every day and hoping that someone wants it, and that can be a very vulnerable feeling.”

“There are a lot of deals that I took that I probably should have either charged more for or not have taken as low of a percentage, but I felt like I needed them to confirm that I was a designer,” she added. “But I’ve always been a designer – I just didn’t know that I was.”

She said she felt like this a few times before, specifically when Target asked her to represent Black History Month with her designs. Ms. Luter is biracial and said she can struggle with identity.

“I’ve sort of grown up not feeling black enough and not feeling white enough,” she said. “There was a moment going through this project that I broke down and cried. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t feel I’m black enough to do this project.’ There was imposter syndrome.”

Her experiences and authenticity have led mothers to reach out, asking Ms. Luter to talk to children who may be struggling in school for the same reasons. 

“It’s extremely humbling, and I’m feeling more fulfilled,” she explained. “What I’m doing is more than just [designing] a pillow. That’s not something I expected going into this.”

The I Heart Black Business Tour groups have lunch at Vivian’s Soul Food in Cedar Rapids last August. CREDIT CANDICE SMITH

Candice Smith, the owner of a corporate event planning organization called I Heart Black Business, is another entrepreneur that aims to inspire and give voice to other businesses around her. Moving back to Iowa City years after graduating from the University of Iowa, she recognized that Black entrepreneurs could be better supported by creating a bridge between the community and entrepreneurs, connecting owners to resources that can help them grow sustainably, and inspiring the next generation to own their own business.

“In my culture growing up in the Chicago area, I didn’t always hear about Black entrepreneurs, and when you do hear about them, they don’t always last,” said Ms. Smith.

Sometimes, she says, there’s a lack of mentors or funding. But other times, there’s simply not enough marketing and promotion done for Black businesses, making it difficult for any business to survive.

Ms. Smith tries to rectify these problems by holding a big social event each year. For example, in 2021, she held the I Heart Black Business Tour (where participants could take a guided tour to various Black-owned businesses in the community to introduce the owners to new customers). This year, she holds smaller networking events focused on connecting entrepreneurs with critical resources.

One such event is Lunch and Learn with small businesses like Da Flava Unit, Cafe on the Go, Dream City and the program director for the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Targeted Small Business (TSB) Program.

The TSB program has been in effect since the 1980s and gives a credential to businesses majority-owned by people of color, women, service-disabled veterans and people with disabilities. They offer low-interest microloans up to $50,000, and attempt to build connections with, and between, small business owners. They also highlight the stories of small business owners around the state.

“Candice Smith is one of our targeted small businesses and had reached out to us to give some feedback about our program,” said Jill Lippincott, innovation team lead for the IEDA. “We asked Candice to help us organize an event in her area…she created the itinerary, and we said we’ll be there.”

During the Iowa City Area Development Group quarterly investor council meeting on Feb. 17, Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said he expected to award 10 TSB applicants grants in February. The city also plans to make a “multimillion-dollar investment in the historically underserved business community using federal recovery dollars” in 2022, a sign that the issue is a priority for local officials.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, Ms. Luter said she noticed increased attention and exposure toward her business, and she was conflicted. Although thankful for the opportunities that came across her path, she couldn’t help but think some doors may not have necessarily been opened if people weren’t incredibly intentional because of those events. Would the next business owner get the same opportunities?

“I think from my personal experience, there are more people than ever trying to be intentional about shopping from Black artists and shopping from small businesses,” said Ms. Luter. “But I also want to make sure it doesn’t become trendy. I feel there are times it has become a trendy thing to do because it’s Black History Month. It’s not just about a month, because every day we should be uplifting small businesses and people of every color.”

Visit candiceluter.com to see more of her collections and iheartblack.biz to be on the lookout for monthly networking events.