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VOL 3. NO. 17 Friday, April 27 - Thursday, May 10, 2001
Local Women React to Economic Census Results
By Wayne A. YOUNG

Every five years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts an Economic Census. Unlike the Decennial Census that counts people, the Economic Census tallies businesses. From data collected in 1997, The Bureau recently released a publication on black-owned businesses and a separate report on women-owned businesses.

Nationally, the Economic Census reveals that blacks owned about one of every 25 non-farm enterprises. However, black-owned business brought in less than one half of one penny for every $100 brought in by all businesses.

The District had the highest percentage of black-owned business, about three in 10. Maryland had the third highest and Virginia the sixth highest percentage, with less than three in 10 businesses being black-owned. Despite the high percentage of black businesses in Washington, for example, the District's black businesses were only able to attract less than three cents of every $100 earned by all businesses.

Black women owned about 4.5 of every 10 black-owned businesses. They had an even tougher time generating revenue. About $26 of every $100 spent with a black business went to a company owned by a black women.

One of those businesses counted in the 1997 Census was Oliver, a natural hair-salon owned by Darlene Oliver on upper Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Despite the dim odds for the success of a business owned by an African-American woman, Oliver says, "My love for black people keep me from fearing failure." Like six of 10 women-owned businesses in metropolitan D.C., Oliver is a service-oriented company.

The category with the second highest number of women-owned businesses is retail, with about one in 10 businesses fitting into this sector. Operations like Sisterspace and Books is one such retailer and despite the recent commercial success of books written by black female authors, prosperity at the U Street, N.W. store is not coming easy. "Getting black people to support their own business and invest in themselves," is our major battle said co-owner Fay Williams, after recounting a story of a customer who expressed joy that a national chain was not going out of business so she may continue patronizing them.

Within retail, women are particularly concentrated in the apparel and accessory stores category, where they own a little more than half of all such firms. That result from the Census was news to Millee Spears of Khismet Wearable Art. "From reading Women's Wear Daily magazine, I thought the industry was male dominated," she said from her home-office, "The trade magazine's pictures often portray women only as clerks and models." Khismet was one of several black businesses that the now closed 1800 Belmont Arts Center once housed.

Census data confirms that manufacturing is a category where black women are well under-represented and that is where Oliver is headed. "Producing products is my retirement fund. It's my IRA," she reasoned. She plans to add all-natural shea butter hair cream and body butter to her line of all-natural hair oils, bath crystals, and body oils with matching body soap.

The 1997 report only includes businesses operating during 1996. Therefore, it does not include Marsha and Annette Martin's champagne lounge restaurant, Ellington's, which they opened in May 1998, or the 8th Street Market, which the sisters opened across the street from the eatery in October 1999.

Like many small business owners, the sisters didn't consult Census data before opening the Capitol Hill locations. "The information I used came from articles in Black Enterprise and reports on the lack of grocery stores in under-served communities," said Marsha. She also dusted off her hotel and restaurant management textbooks before writing her business plans and opening for business.

Large corporations routinely use Census data and numbers from other sources to develop costly computer models that assist them at finding optimum locations and creating marketing strategies. Computerized models developed by companies like Arlington, VA based Claritas discover patterns of consumer behavior within trade areas and examine influencing factors such as population, geo-demographics, competitor locations, employment counts, business concentrations, road networks, and traffic generators.

While none of the women reported ever using free census data or computer programs, most agreed that looking at such data could improve their planning. "Using Census data to compare our receipts to the average receipts of similar firms is something I should do. It would allow me to see where I stand in the marketplace," added Spears.

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