ASHEVILLE – The inaugural WNC Black Business Expo is coming up in early April, featuring several high-profile speakers — including a big-time shark.
That’s a shark as in the hit ABC television show, “Shark Tank,” which features budding or aspiring entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas to a panel of heavy-hitting entrepreneurs.
Daymond John, CEO and Founder of FUBU, a global lifestyle brand and a fashion industry pioneer with over $6 billion in product sales worldwide, is in his 13th season on “Shark Tank.” He will be the featured speaker April 9 of the three-day Expo, which will run from April 8-10 at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville.
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John, who is African American, is also an author of five books, including New York Times best-sellers “The Power of Broke” and “Rise and Grind.” As the event organizers note, he’s come a long way from taking out a $100,000 mortgage on his mother’s house and working from her basement.
Rika Harrison, executive director of the WNC Black Business Expo, said she hopes and believes John’s story, along with other featured speakers who are Latino and African American and overcame similarly challenging circumstances, will inspire those in attendance. The event is free, with the exception of the keynote speaker luncheon, which costs $50 plus service fees.
Harrison said they’re expecting about 700 people to attend over three days.
“Two of my Latinos speakers and one of my special guest speakers that will be appearing Friday, they started from poverty,” Harrison said. “One of them was homeless, and she’s an attorney now. She’s a 13-time national pitch champion, three times number one best-selling author.”
Another speaker, an African American, is one of nine children and grew up in extreme poverty, she added. The event will also feature multiple local entrepreneurs who’ve succeeded in various enterprises ranging from lawn care to youth programs.
“Part of me choosing those people is I wanted people to see that nothing is impossible,” Harrison said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. If you persevere, and you keep trying and keep persevering through all the struggles and even the racism at times, you can accomplish your dreams and goals.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Harrison has been in Western North Carolina for nine years. She started working in 2020 in ad sales for a local newspaper group and got curious about how many Black-owned businesses were in the area.
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Harrison researched it and found about 130 Black-owned businesses listed in Henderson County, and close to 500 in Buncombe. Some of those are defunct, partly due to the effects of the pandemic, but that still leaves hundreds of Black-owned businesses in the area.
‘Side hustles’ and full-time gigs
“A lot of Black people, on top of their 9 to 5 jobs, they have side hustles,” Harrison said. “They create businesses they are hoping to turn into full-time businesses.”
In October 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau released the findings of its most recent Annual Business Survey, covering 2019. It found about 18.7%, or 1.1 million, of U.S. employer businesses were minority-owned.
The survey found the U.S. had an estimated 134,567 Black- or African American-owned businesses, with $133.7 billion in annual receipts, 1.3 million employees and about $40.5 billion in annual payroll. Of those businesses, 29.5%, or 39,705, were in the health care and social assistance sector.
Nnweyna Smith, 44, is one of those Black entrepreneurs who plans to attend the expo and continuing her business run. From New York City, she grew up in Asheville and graduated from A.C. Reynolds High School. Smith moved back to Asheville two years ago from Philadelphia.
She has had a wellness business and now operates Sankofa Market AVL, a platform for Black entrepreneurs to network and showcase products and services. That’s in addition to her day job as a housing case manager with Helpmate, the domestic violence advocacy and crisis response nonprofit for Buncombe County.
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Smith jokes that a lot of African American entrepreneurs like her are “Clark Kent during the day, Superman” at night. Her reasons for attending the expo are simple.
“I’m trying to elevate my business,” Smith said. “I want to relaunch it. After COVID, as a business owner, we had to pivot the way we present ourselves to customers, so I’m just looking, trying to learn new ways of marketing my materials, marketing my products, meeting new customers.”
She’s held events at the YMI Impact Center and more recently at Starbucks, but she wants to grow the business.
She’ll also use the event as an opportunity to network and even talk with folks who could be seen as the competition. Asked what she would share with fellow entrepreneurs, Smith said, “Just being persistent.”
“Knowing your customer base, knowing your market, being confident and keep pushing forward,” Smith said.
Chohnice Daniels and her fiancé, Travis Whiteside, both hold doctoral degrees in chiropractic, and last August they opened a practice in Asheville called The Plug, a Chiropractic Wellness Center. Daniels said they plan to attend all three days of the event.
“I’m super-excited,” Daniels said. “This is our first business, and we’re very interested in expanding our entrepreneurial ventures and jumping into other areas of business. So to be at an event with a lineup of people who have very successful businesses, who have been investors and things of that nature, it’s very motivational.”
She and Whiteside, an Asheville native, have undergraduate degrees in addition to their doctoral diplomas from Logan University in Missouri. But they don’t have business degrees.
“Honestly, we are learning a lot as we go,” Daniels said. “We have some mentors, who have been very helpful, and we read a lot of books – a lot of business books.”
So regarding the opportunity to hear from entrepreneurs such as John, Daniels said they’re “super-stoked about listening to speakers and joining the workshops.”
It will also be a great opportunity to meet other Black and minority professionals and entrepreneurs, said Daniels, a Chicago native. She said it’s been challenging at times to meet other Black professionals in the Asheville area, partly because the African American population here is small.
Asheville’s population in April 2020 was 94,589, according to U.S. Census data, and just 11.2% of that population is African American, while 84% is white. Latinos comprise 6.8% of the population, Asians 1.7%, census data shows.
All are welcome; unity is key
Other featured speakers April 9 include Adrian Miller, a culinary historian and James Beard Award winner; and Robyn Hatcher, founder/CEO of SpeakEtc, an author and award-winning actress.
Attendees can register to attend up till the days’ events, so Harrison is hopeful attendance numbers will grow even more.
At the end of the event, Harrison wants young and old entrepreneurs to leave energized and rejuvenated. She talks with a lot of business owners, and many are exhausted from the past two years, between the pandemic, lack of employees and overall stress.
Most of these entrepreneurs are “creating products and services that really speak to their hearts, and I just want to see them continue, if that’s what they want,” Harrison said.
Harrison said that through sponsors, they were able to keep nearly all of the event free, and that’s a key consideration, as they want as many attendees as possible. And while the event has “Black” in the name, Harrison stressed it’s open to everyone.
“It is a Black expo, but we want everyone to come out and patronize and support and network and fellowship with everyone, all the Black businesses and attendees,” Harrison said. “This is not just for Black people, although it is highlighting Black-owned business, for sure, we still want the community to come out. It’s super-important for me that we just be unified, because everything affects all of us.”
Inaugural WNC Black Business Expo
What: The WNC Minority Business Association is hosting its inaugural WNC Black Business Expo, a networking and learning event focusing on minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. The three-day event has a theme of “Inspiring and Motivating the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs.” The event will feature visionary guest speakers, educational workshops, panel discussions, networking sessions, a trade show, and food and entertainment. Daymond John, an entrepreneur, author and star of ABC’s “Shark Tank” show, will be the keynote speaker.
When: April 8-10.
Where: Crowne Plaza Hotel & Resort in Asheville.
Featured April 9 speakers: Opening Keynote: Adrian Miller, culinary historian, James Beard Award winner, attorney. Keynote: Daymond John, entrepreneur, author and star of ABC’s “Shark Tank” show. Closing keynote speaker: Robyn Hatcher, founder/CEO of SpeakEtc, author, award-winning actress.
Local speakers: Asheville’s Jason A. Muhammad, founder of JM Leadership Development; Alex Cardona, Asheville resident, owner of a legal service business and radio show host; Dakota Grady, a financial coach, professional speaker and author; Jasmine Dixx, owner and founder of Simply J Beauty; Reggie Tidwell, designer and photographer, founding president of AIGA Asheville; Chi Chi Okezie, owner and producer of SIMPLEnetworking; Stephen Smith, president of Black Men United and owner of a landscaping and construction company in Buncombe County; Keynon Lake, Asheville native and social worker and founder of the “My Daddy Taught Me That” programs that work with local youth.
Registration/more information: Registration is open until the day of the events. Visit WNC Black Business Expo at wncblackexpo.com or email [email protected]
Sponsors: The event has attracted 47 sponsors to date, headed by top-tier supporters Western Women’s Center, NC Idea Foundation, Lenoir-Rhyne University and Western Carolina University.