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
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
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
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.