An organization in the Greater Manhattan region is addressing the disparities in resources that make it difficult for Black-owned businesses to thrive. The group, Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills, was formally founded in 2020 and has experienced tremendous growth since its inception.
Founder and president Sheila Ellis-Glasper said the organization’s mission is to “empower, equip and connect Black business owners in the Flint Hills with resources so we can build stronger and more effective businesses and positively impact our community.”
The volunteer-based group partners with regional and state entities to provide resources to minority-owned businesses. The group also aims to recruit and retain Black entrepreneurs to the region by creating an inclusive community in which they can belong and thrive. Finally, the group aims to promote its member businesses and other Black-owned businesses in the region so that community members can intentionally support these companies and support long-term change.
“There are some key needs that underrepresented businesses deal with, the top two issues being access to capital and access to resources,” Ellis-Glasper said. “A lot of us are first-generation business owners and so a lot of us didn’t have examples of people around us running successful businesses, let alone trying to access necessary resources in a place where we would feel comfortable asking those questions — because of barriers when it comes to race.”
The organization was born out of a gap that Ellis-Glasper experienced as an entrepreneur herself. As the founder and CEO of SEG Media Collective LLC, she had been active in many business committees and organizations around the Greater Manhattan region, such as Region Reimagined, the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, One Million Cups and The Fellow coworking space.
“I grew pretty tired of being the only one like me in the room, so instead of just mentioning it, I started asking, ‘Why am I the only one in the room?’” Ellis-Glasper said. “What I kept seeing was that we were missing the inclusive nature you need to foster a healthy and supportive startup community — the kind that I needed when I started my business here in Manhattan.”
Ellis-Glasper’s agency is now five years old, and as a visible member of the community, many fellow Black entrepreneurs and business owners came to her asking for advice. She sent them to existing resources such as the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, but she realized there were a lot of gaps in terms of resources for minority-owned businesses and particularly Black entrepreneurs.
In an attempt to connect Black entrepreneurs and share resources, Ellis-Glasper started an informal Facebook group. The online community quickly grew from a few people to 50, and now has 120 members who are aspiring, moonlighting or full-blown entrepreneurs.
The organization became more public and formal in summer 2020, in response to the growing call to action in the community as more people wondered what they could do to alleviate racial injustice.
“Last year, after George’s Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement was elevated and was in the forefront of people’s minds. People were trying to figure out what they could do to help, which gave us a platform,” Ellis-Glasper said. “One of the issues with racial injustice is the racial wealth gap: white families have nearly ten times more net worth than Black families. Entrepreneurship helps bridge that gap.”
The COVID-19 pandemic further amplified these disparities and shined a light on many of the issues Black-owned businesses face in terms of access to capital and resources.
“A lot of the advocacy work we were doing during the pandemic was helping businesses access Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. The number one thing you needed was a banking relationship,” said Ellis-Glasper. “You also needed clear accounting records and you needed employees. A lot of our businesses are solopreneurs or run businesses with contractors, so they didn’t have this large payroll to cash in on the PPP. We knew we needed to help connect members to those resources, so they could access the capital they need to sustain.”
Over the last year, Ellis-Glasper, vice chair Douglas Barrett, and secretary and treasurer Jessica Elmore have led the organization through massive growth. Even though the group is still in its early stages, Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills has formed partnerships with several major organizations and businesses in the area.
One natural partner was Spark, a local entrepreneur support organization that works closely with Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills in many ways. The group offers programming events to help educate and support budding entrepreneurs and start-up companies. Twelve members of Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills recently graduated from an Entrepreneurial Business Basics class, which Spark helped sponsor, and two of those graduates went on to win an annual local pitch competition, StartupMHK. Following the success of Entrepreneurial Business Basics in Manhattan, Network Kansas designated the Kauffman FastTrac-based program as a Board-Certified program, allowing for the use of E-Community grant funds to cover registration expenses for participants across 66 Kansas Entrepreneurship Communities.
“When the StartupMHK competition first started, I was the only person of color that pitched in that competition,” Ellis-Glasper said. “Fast-forward to four years later and there’s a lot more representation. They have always had the talent, great ideas and great businesses, but it’s a resource thing.”
The successful partnership with Spark has also led to other opportunities for the organization. Kansas Gas Service sought to support minority-owned businesses in the state and reached out to Spark, who connected them with Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills. The company has sponsored several members of Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills to become members of Spark and gain access to the organization’s benefits, including their coworking, conference room and event spaces.
Kansas State University Innovation Partners also supports the efforts of Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills. K-State Innovation Partners facilitates collaboration between the university, industry and communities through corporate engagement, technology commercialization and economic development, and often helps connect entrepreneurs with innovation and technology developed at the university.
“When you think about inventions and patents, you have to think about being inclusive to bring a diversity of ideas to the table,” said Ellis-Glasper.
K-State Innovation Partners has donated to the organization in support of multiple projects that recognize Black-owned businesses in the region, including National Black Business Month events in August and a vendor fair with over 100 attendees. Additionally, in November 2021, Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills held a Black Friday event at Manhattan Town Center to showcase several of its member businesses and encourage community members to support local minority-owned businesses when shopping on the holiday.
“We’re a young organization, and as we continue, we’re creating more and more awareness for our members,” Ellis-Glasper said. “We welcome partners who are interested in helping an organization that’s doing advocacy work for Black entrepreneurship. We are in a time where people are more aware of the racial injustices that happen in our nation. Partnering with us is a way to be intentional about making an impact.”
While the community response has been overwhelmingly positive, there is still a lot of work to be done. The group plans to continue advocating for Black entrepreneurs to help them create businesses that are sustainably thriving in a more inclusive region.
Individuals can help support the organization’s mission by following and sharing its social media accounts, attending events and distributing its directory with others. Ellis-Glasper suggests using the directory as a way to be intentional about supporting Black-owned businesses when looking for a product or service.
Visit the Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills website to learn how you or your business can get involved.