Summit focuses on BIPOC entrepreneurship in Twin Ports
Organizations that support small businesses came together to develop goals to make Duluth and Superior a good place for BIPOC business growth.
SUPERIOR — Charting a course to make the Twin Ports a more friendly environment for entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color, local organizations held the first BIPOC Entrepreneurial Development Summit on Monday, April 24.
Professors at the University of Wisconsin-Superior joined forces with the UWS Small Business Development Center, Family Rising Together, The Development Association and the Superior Business Improvement District to plan and host the event at the Superior Entrepreneurship Center.
Sakib Mahmud, associate professor of economics and business management, said the goal is to make the summit an annual event.
On Monday, the group aimed to identify goals from recommendations made following a study of BIPOC-owned businesses in the Twin Ports. Offering networking opportunities and providing resources and exposure for BIPOC businesses rose to the top.
Mahmud partnered with communications professor Ephraim Nikoi to conduct the study and discover what BIPOC business owners learned from their COVID-19 pandemic experience. The study team identified 84 entrepreneurs in the Duluth and Superior area; 24 of them responded to an online survey to give researchers a snapshot of BIPOC businesses in the Twin Ports.
Of those who responded, most business owners said they work with less than $50,000 in operating revenue, but 79% percent still offer jobs for one to five employees. The majority of BIPOC-run businesses have been around for less than 20 years, although the range spans eight months to 69 years.
While more than half of the respondents reported that the pandemic caused them to temporarily close their businesses, no one reported a permanent closure; only half reported having access to COVID-19 relief funds.
“We had a lot of help along the way,” said Natalie Harris, who opened Superior Waffles with her husband, Cal Harris, in 2021. From taking classes through UWS’s Continuing Education Program to grants from the city and the state to funding through the Entrepreneur Fund, the couple said they were able to open the only waffle bar in the region during the pandemic.
After 10 years in corporate marketing, Natalie Harris was laid off during the pandemic, but the Superior couple had long had a dream of owning their cafe. During a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, they started planning to make their dream a reality.
“When I was a kid, we always had pancakes; we didn’t have a waffle iron,” said Cal Harris, explaining why the couple decided to focus on sweet and savory waffles. “We do a lot of traveling, so every time we would seek out a hotel, it had to have waffles, or we wouldn’t go. It’s a comfort food. Everyone enjoys it. You just feel good when you eat a waffle.”
A key to success is exposure, said Kevin Anderson II, a board member for Ecolibrium3. Someone may have a plan for a food business and entering that field could start with a food truck to generate foot traffic that could lead to buying a building two or three years later, he said.
Exposure has helped Superior Waffles take off, according to Natalie Harris. The restaurant has had two visits from Gov. Tony Evers and was featured on Wisconsin Public Radio, exposure which she said has helped generate traffic to the business.
Anderson said if someone has the drive and the hustle, there has to be a place where they can get the exposure needed to succeed.
“We have to get them comfortable to do that,” Anderson said. “We have to give them the mindset to do that. We’ve got to give them support to do that … We need partnerships to hit that home run, but we also need partnerships to hit those singles to get folks around the bases.”
ChaQuana McEntyre, founder of Family Rise Together and Monday’s keynote speaker, said “BIPOC doesn’t mean Black.”
It could include white-passing biracial individuals, she said, adding that the goal should be a community without divides.
At Monday's event, Mahmud said they invited many organizations that provide support to small business owners in the region to offer the recommendations.
“We didn’t want the study to just sit on a shelf somewhere,” Nikoi said.
The goal for the next summit is to bring together BIPOC entrepreneurs.
Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said the greater community needs to do a better job of including the BIPOC community in those resources that already exist to make everyone stronger.
That’s the tricky part, Nikoi said. While some in the BIPOC community may have had some bad experiences, he said it’s the reason the community needs to be engaged.
“We know it’s different and there are more road blocks there; that’s why we want to help," said Kelly Peterson, director of the Superior BID.
“We want to make sure that we find those areas where we can help,” Mahmud said. “We want those communities to feel like they’re welcome here. Because when you feel like you’re welcome, you start to think about starting a business, raising a family.”
This story was updated at 8 a.m. May 2 to correct the name of Ecolibrium3 board member Kevin Anderson II. It originally posted at 7 p.m. April 26.