Frank Scott Jr.’s second year on the job as the first elected Black mayor of Little Rock has proven a lively one. And we’re barely halfway through it. Between the pandemic and national protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, Scott and the city were thrown into crisis mode.
As the nation wrestles with an ongoing self-reflection centered on systemic racism, Black business owners in Little Rock who spoke to Arkansas Money & Politics said their primary obstacle simply is awareness that they even exist.
Scott, who grew up in Little Rock and served on the staff of former Gov. Mike Beebe before launching a banking career, is committed to ensuring a level playing field. It’s job No. 1 for any mayor, he told AMP.
“It’s always good to understand that the Black community is not a monolithic community. There is an array of Black businesses from what one would call the underbanked to the banked. And so, the goal in any city is to ensure that you have an equitable economy,” he said. “And when we have an equitable economy, we focus on the needed services to help bridge the skills gap and the technical assistance to help those that are underbanked to become bankable.
“And the more Black, brown and other minority companies that become bankable, the better our economy will be. Because it then has a more diverse and inclusive economy based on equitable economics. But with anything, every business, whether it’s Black-owned, brown-owned, other minorities or just a business in general, three things that are always needed: capital, access and opportunity.”
Scott plans to hire a chief equity officer this year to run an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Among other duties, this new “CEO” will be charged with making sure access to resources is available for all small business owners, whether they do business in the more affluent parts of the city north of Interstate 630 and west of 430 or in lower-income areas east of I-30 and in Scott’s own stomping grounds, southwest.
“That’s the focus here in the city of Little Rock,” he said. “We will lead by example by increasing our minority- and women-owned business vendor span, by working to provide access to educational opportunities for local small businesses to receive the technical systems that they need to be prepared to access a bank or a banker and then, again, to focus solely on the skills gap and innovation. Our goal always is to connect the city with the economy irrespective of a minority or not, because what’s good for south of 630 and east of 30 is good for north of 630. And what we want to do is to have a vibrant, inclusive economy that no matter who you are, you have the access to capital, you have the accessibility to financial services and have an opportunity to be successful.”
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission records 523 businesses owned by minorities and women in the state, more than 400 of them Black-owned. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce lists among its membership 126 businesses that are minority-owned or -operated. And as the state’s urban core, Little Rock is home to one of its highest concentrations of Black residents, who make up 42 percent of the city proper’s 2019 population of just under 200,000 and roughly 16 percent of the state’s 3 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That’s a healthy chunk of the state economy. Native son Brandon Campbell returned home from stints in the entertainment industries on both coasts to launch Little Rock Fashion Week among other ventures and eventually sign on in 2018 as the chamber’s director of small business and inclusion. Right away, he saw potential in the city’s multiculturalism.
“My immediate impression of the business environment in Central Arkansas was the opportunities I saw for growth and success,” he said. “There are untapped markets locally and within reach of Little Rock that business owners can access relatively easily. This is one of the things that is different about Little Rock as compared to bigger cities. The reverse side of that closeness is the importance of personal brand and personal reputation; it’s fairly easy to create a buzz and spread awareness of your business through word of mouth. That same ease of access translates to small businesses who are looking to get connected to resource providers and free assistance to help make their business a success.”
David Hall, proprietor of K Hall and Sons Produce on Wright Avenue near Little Rock Central High, serves an almost exclusively Black community. The produce stand he took over from his father includes a grocery store, butcher shop and lunch counter as well as a robust delivery service with four trucks. Closing in on 50 years in business, K Hall delivers to local schools, restaurants and even state agencies. And while the pandemic led to Hall trimming the store’s hours, he’s been able to retain all three of his non-family employees. “Business is staying pretty steady, pretty busy,” he said.
As a Black-business owner, Hall acknowledges the “good ol’ boy system” still exists. He remembers a vendor alerting him to a call the man had received from an out-of-state buyer who warned about doing business with the “right kind of people,” apparently in reference to Hall. But he believes the main obstacle for many Black entrepreneurs is the lack of awareness that their ventures even exist. Hall said once customers visit his store for the first time, they often become repeat customers.
“It has a lot to do with where you are,” he said. “Some people are afraid to come down into this area. People have a negative perception about this area.”
The Hall family is working to expand their brand. In 2018, Hall’s three sons launched the popular HallBros2Go food truck, “Hallin’ Good Food,” and set up every week in the K Hall parking lot for Soul Food Sunday. The sons — David Jr., Daron and Devin — also work at the store, two of them full time, as do other family members.
Opportunity is there, Hall noted. “But it just doesn’t always trickle down to us.”
Opportunity is there for Little Rock’s Shaunda Williams, just not always around the corner. A tech solutions consultant who launched SLW Consulting Group, Williams develops websites and offers marketing and branding services. But more than a decade after starting up, she continues to try and establish a foothold in her own backyard. Though her clients represent multiple states, countries and ethnicities, the majority of her business from white clients comes from outside of Arkansas.
“You don’t hear a lot about Black and minority businesses,” she said. Which is why Williams co-founded the Black Out Movement (BlackOutMovement.com), a platform for the promotion of Black-owned businesses.
She said racism remains a factor for Black businesses, but heightened awareness is the key.
“On the tech side, people want to help, but they just don’t know about our services.”
The city is making an effort to increase awareness of minority businesses. The Little Rock Chamber annually hosts Minority Enterprise Development (MED) Week to celebrate and promote minority businesses. The 37th annual program, the longest running at the Chamber, is scheduled for Sept. 14-18.
Other initiatives include the Chamber’s diversity and inclusion action committee, the work of which is presented in the “AR Story” social media series; the Equip Small Business Success Series; the Little Rock SCORE Office Hours at the Chamber; and the Spark! Pre-Accelerator in partnership with the Venture Center.
The Chamber also partners with the four Pulaski County public school districts to try and transform high schools into Ford Next Generation Learning career-themed academies by improving college- and career-readiness as well as life-long learning skills.
Private efforts such as the Black Out Movement and Arkansas Forward complement the resources available through the city and state to minority business owners. Campbell believes opportunity is there for the area’s emerging minority business class.
“The low cost of living in Little Rock makes it easier for an entrepreneur to take that leap of faith and mitigate his or her risks,” he said. “There are genuine people in the entrepreneur ecosystem who want to help you succeed. In addition, with the region’s diverse industry mix, it can overcome a recession like I witnessed when I moved back in 2009. One of the things that we are working on is improving the quality and access to public education and workforce development more broadly. We know that moving forward, communities will compete in large part based on their talent, and that is one area when we as a region need more investment.”
Moving his community forward has been Muskie Harris’ mission ever since he became the first Black athlete out of Little Rock Central recruited to the Hill in the early 1970s. Harris, as anyone who meets him could attest, sees Arkansans not as Black, white or brown, but as Razorback red. It’s that devotion to a common cause that binds Arkansans together, he says.
Harris mentors and counsels patients battling drug and alcohol addiction — Black, white, you name it — at his Little Rock nonprofit, Muskie Harris Rehabilitation Services. He also founded and serves as president of the service organization 100 Black Men of Greater Little Rock. As a small business owner, Harris believes things are “some better” from a racism standpoint but believes Black businesses could use more exposure.
“I’ve worked to open doors to expose racism and help people learn about different cultures and expose people to different things,” he said. “Socially, Blacks don’t get a chance to be exposed to this, whites don’t get a chance to be exposed to this part… In the business world, you go into bigger urban areas, and you see a lot of Black economy. But in rural areas like we have here, then it’s small. The world moves so fast that Blacks can’t afford to get in on some of the services to be competitive out here.”
While acknowledging “tremendous growth” in the Black business community in his lifetime, Harris notes little to no growth for Black businesses in the high-end sectors such as tech and industry. “We don’t even exist there.”
A former executive at First Security Bank, Scott believes Central Arkansas has the homegrown banks to help grow Black-owned small businesses, banks that are focused on increasing the number of “bankable” businesses.
His vision: a city that provides the resources for minority small-business owners to move up the ladder. Banks are risk managers, after all. Scott wants to help them to see more of these businesses as worthy investments.
“I think what was needed in the playing field is intentionality,” he said. “For Little Rock to be on the level of the economies like the cities of Dallas, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Louisville, Kansas City, we have to continue to be more intentional with our development. Businesses and the business economy have to be more intentional. And when we become more intentional, there will be greater access.
“Little Rock is a shining example not only in the state of Arkansas but the entire nation on how we’ve handled the global pandemic as well as this nation’s justice movement,” he continued. “We are a resilient city, resourceful and responsible. And you can see the clear differences in how this city has responded in the wake of crisis, in the wake of injustices, that not only were we able to allow frustration and agony to be expressed, but in a responsible fashion… And that is credit to the residents of Little Rock and their ability to be resilient, resourceful and responsible.”