For Tonisha Roberts, a first-time business owner, the pandemic resulted in a temporary hiatus from her bespoke clothing company Reality Effects Anybody’s Life (REAL).
“COVID-19 has completely reset everything for everyone, whether you’re a 30-year-old company or a company that’s been on for 30 seconds,” she says. “Given the financial circumstances, not many people could spend money. It was basically about provisioning and, like many people in the community, we didn’t have a budget for COVID-19.
Roberts and her fiancé started the company three years ago to fund their growing mentoring program that aims to provide basic life skills to families in the local Columbia, South Carolina community. After interviews with selected families, the curriculum is tailored to the needs of each child.
With her sales severely affected, Roberts found support from her alma mater, Benedict College, at a local flea market. Earlier this year, while selling shirts at the event, she was approached by a member of the Benedict Faculty who had noticed her Benedict Alumna face mask. Roberts was then invited to set up shop as a salesman at a pop-up shop held in the historic black college bookstore to celebrate women-owned deals.
The pop-up shop event was an introduction to the new entrepreneurial space of the campus bookstore. Roberts sold both Benedict clothing and clients to design their own shirts.
“It gave us the ability to offer our products with little overhead,” says Roberts. “The [community] loved the variety and hands-on experience with their goods. You have vendors you can actually talk to and bring your vision to life. ”
Many of the other participating retailers were affiliated with the Benedict College Women’s Business Center (BCWBC), which was launched in 2020 to offer women entrepreneurs advice, courses, business plan feedback, and other resources. Roberts, for example, worked with BCWBC to bring interns on board to help them with their company’s social media, production, and curriculum development.
“We are living through unprecedented historical times on many fronts,” said Cheryl Salley, director of the BCWBC, in a statement. “During this time we must act together to make a difference like never before. … The main focus of the BCWBC is on the direct cooperation with these companies, which in the past have experienced more social and economic differences compared to their colleagues. “
Find community solutions
According to research by the University of California at Santa Cruz, there were more than a million black-owned companies in the United States as of February. Months later, the number has fallen by 41% with the closure of 440,000 black businesses. A comparatively 17% of white-owned businesses closed over the same period, according to a study by the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Benedict officials saw an opportunity to convert the bookstore space to run a small business incubator for students, alumni, and the local community.
With the faculty recently moving to an open source model to reduce student attendance costs, there wasn’t much reason to run a bookstore, and officials saw a way to eradicate the emptiness of entrepreneurship in the community .
The store was emptied, with designated spaces for Benedict goods on one side and shop departments on the other.
“It made sense to repurpose the space to align it with one of the college’s strategic guidelines, namely to implement initiatives to promote business development and institutional capacity building within Benedict College and the surrounding community,” said Dr. Tracy Dunn, Dean of Benedict’s Tyrone Adam Burroughs School of Business and Entrepreneurship.
To promote the repurposed bookstore – now renamed “The BestofBC Marketplace!” – the institution hosted a pop-up event and hosted informational events on campus during a week-long celebration of entrepreneurship, pitching competitions and student games in April included.
Prepare students for starting a business
For the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year, two interns of business students operated the marketplace and were for the sale of college paraphernalia to the campus community. “Students who participated in this internship not only had first-hand experience running a retail business, but also developed professional skills such as professionalism, leadership, teamwork and technology skills,” says Dunn.
Reseller applications will be available in the fall. Two selected student companies will be awarded kiosk space and a number of community and alumni companies will be invited to the sales area to settle for a calendar year. To be eligible, companies must sell clothing, apparel, cosmetics, shower gel, soap, mugs, jewelry, and novelty related items.
“Whether the bookstore is doing an internship or selling their company’s merchandise through the BESTofBC Marketplace, the goal is for students to apply what they learn in class to real-life circumstances,” says Dunn. “The Marketplace gives you the opportunity to use your accounting, finance, marketing, management and communication skills in a meaningful way.”
Benedict’s campus also has a student-run hair and beauty salon, Tiger Cutz, which has been closed due to COVID-19 but is looking forward to reopening soon.
“Entrepreneurial skills like creative problem solving, communication skills and goal setting with an emphasis on discipline-specific knowledge like finance, marketing and human resource management are transferable to any context,” she adds. “The gig economy is also expected to thrive as the global economy continues to develop after the pandemic. Student entrepreneurs will be well placed to adapt. ”
This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2021 issue of Diverse. Read it here.