Aug 12, 2022
By Jeanne Davant
Ebony Webster created the feeling of an island getaway at her Old Colorado City store, Island Touch Gifts & Baskets. Webster recently joined the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce.
For Black business owners, Rodney Gullatte Jr. says, this is a time of opportunities and challenges.
“Opportunity lies in the fact that we can harness the collective power of Black enterprises here in this region,” said Gullatte, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce, and CEO of Firma IT Solutions. “That hasn’t happened here for quite some time.”
Many Black business owners don’t know each other, he said. “That’s one of the challenges we can turn into an opportunity, which the Black Chamber of Commerce is honored to facilitate.”
In the few months since the new Black Chamber launched, “we’ve already had people reporting to us the opportunities and growth that they’ve had because they’ve been associated with us,” Gullatte said.
Black Chamber member Ebony Webster drew upon her upbringing in Anguilla and the Virgin Islands to create an island feel on Colorado Springs’ Westside at her store, Island Touch Gifts & Baskets.
“One of the main challenges we face is exposure” in a market where the Black population is low (about 6 percent), Webster said. “Because that has been uncomfortable in certain situations, a lot of people avoid that.”
Chamber member Paul Hasty, president of Tint Technologies, believes that the mindset of a Black businessperson is key to overcoming racial stereotypes.
“If you’re thinking of your nationality as a hindrance, that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “I think of myself, my nationality, my Blackness, as an advantage, and therefore it is. … They may go, ‘Oh, he’s Black,’ and I go, “No, I’m here to help you.’”
Hasty, whose crew installs protective safety and security film that prevents glass from shattering, said opportunities abound for Black entrepreneurs who can find a niche that needs to be filled.
“This time for minority business is incredibly open with opportunities, because the funding is there, the guidance is there,” he said, “and customers are just waiting for you if you’re reputable.”
NEW BLACK CHAMBER
The Black Chamber has launched #buyblackcos, a campaign to support local Black businesses in honor of National Black Business Month. The chamber is promoting the campaign on social media by spotlighting Black businesses and their contributions.
“Black-owned businesses employ roughly 920,000 people in the United States,” Ellie RedCloud, Black Chamber board secretary, said in an Aug. 9 post on Facebook. “That’s almost a million people who have employment through Black-owned businesses.
“While we want to support Black-owned businesses for a ton of different reason reasons, we also want to make sure that everyone understands supporting Black-owned businesses is not just being an ally with the Black community, but is supporting small businesses — and we know that small businesses are the backbone of our economy.”
Gullatte said one of the Black Chamber’s primary purposes is to sponsor events that bring together members of the Black business community.
“Those connections are creating all kinds of economic opportunities for people, especially in the Black business sphere of influence,” he said.
The Black Chamber, originally formed some 30 years ago, had to overcome its own challenges.
“It started with a spark,” Gullatte said, “because people felt disenfranchised. Thirty years ago, it was a different community. [The Black Chamber] did a lot of good, but after a couple of decades, it started to falter, to lose relevance and to not be as in touch with the community as it was before. Some people had a negative experience with the Black Chamber before this new crew took over in January.”
The current Chamber evolved from the Colorado Springs Black Business Network, which was founded in 2018.
The group’s leaders decided to rebuild the existing Black Chamber rather than starting from scratch, and created new vision and mission statements, new branding and a new board.
The Black Chamber was relaunched in April with a well-attended event at 3E’s Comedy Club.
“Some people still have that negative sensibility and haven’t come back and checked us out,” Gullatte said. “That’s a challenge, but the opportunity is that I get to reach out to our Black professionals and owners community. We have to take the time to earn their trust back.”
The chamber is operated by a board that includes strong leaders such as Vice President Dr. Kenya Lee, a practicing physician who owns PureLee Redefined, a medical spa; RedCloud, a certified digital marketer and owner of Technically Social Marketing; and Treasurer Natasha Hutson, business access advisor with US Bank.
Directors include Juaquin Mobley, vice president of programs for CommunityWorks; Ramiere Fitzpatrick, a planner with Kimley-Horn and Associates; and Kendall Godley, an attorney at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP.
The Black Chamber’s membership has increased from eight in April to 25 in August — all organic growth, Gullatte said. His goal is to have 100 members by the end of this year.
“We have not even pulled out all the stops to grab members,” he said. “There are still some business-related challenges we have to solve. Once we start pushing it, I’m sure we’ll get to that.”
Access to capital and financial services has been a challenge historically for Black people in business and in life, Gullatte said.
Gullatte said the Black Business Network shared information about loans available to help businesses during the pandemic, which enabled many of them to stay afloat.
“I’m trying to magnify that with the Black Chamber,” he said.
The chamber supports organizations like Energize Colorado and the Colorado Enterprise Fund, as well as a new round of Survive and Thrive grants for small businesses.
The chamber also is providing education and information on financial housekeeping so that, when financial opportunities arise, members are ready.
“My dream is to eliminate the achievement gap between Black people and Latinos and everyone else,” Gullatte said. “A lot of that is relationships with each other and other BIPOC brothers and sisters. There’s more that connects us than separates us.”
Another mission, Gullatte said, is to help people of color “get over that fear of being the only one in the room and to know that you are good enough to be respected and to be heard.”
CHAMBER MEMBERS EXCEL
Webster knows that feeling of being overwhelmingly outnumbered.
“There are a lot of old mindsets” about Black people, she said. “But if you show people different, they will respect you for being different.”
Webster, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is also a citizen of Great Britain, decided to join the U.S. Army and served as a petroleum specialist.
“It was as exciting as it sounds,” she said, but the service gave her the opportunity to save money and to learn what it takes to open a business.
She developed a business plan, based on her idea of creating gift baskets and handcrafted self-care products. She opened an online store in 2019 during her medical retirement outprocessing at Fort Carson, her last duty station.
“I did a lot of community events like the farmers markets and classes around the city,” Webster said.
While she sometimes felt uncomfortable at being the only Black person in the room, “I am very open to being in an uncomfortable position,” she said. “If you don’t put yourself out there, no one would know what you’re about. You have to show up and be present in predominantly different ethnicity areas. There has been some backlash here and there, but I have received a lot of positivity from the community.”
In April of this year, she opened Island Touch Gifts & Baskets’ retail store at 14 S. 25th St.
Webster believes she has been successful because of her careful planning and persistence.
“Start small, don’t forget your goals, and keep going forward,” she said. “Always remember why you’re doing what you’re doing and stick with it.”
Fort Carson was also the final duty station for U.S. Army veteran Hasty. A Detroit native, he served for 24 years as a preventive medicine NCO. After he retired in 1997, he worked for five years as IT support leader at Atmel Corporation. He was laid off by Atmel in 2001.
“It was highly stressful,” he said, but Hasty bounced back by drawing upon his love of cars and starting two auto service businesses: Midwest Dash Masters and Spoiler Dude. The companies installed wood-look dashes and window film.
“I discovered that window film was relatively easy,” he said. “If you messed it up, all you had to do is peel it off and start again.”
One day, he got a call from a police department in Texas that wanted protective safety and security film installed. That led to certification as a premier installer of SafetyShield, a film that was developed In Florida to make glass shatter-resistant against hurricanes. High-performing installations deter the effects of explosions, vandalism, attempted burglary and other life-threatening situations.
Tint Technologies, started shortly after the other two businesses, has installed safety and security film at a dialysis medical center, a drug manufacturing company, the Teller County Jail, Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado and other commercial clients, as well as several residences.
“Lately we are doing pregnancy clinics where women would go for counseling,” Hasty said, “because of the recent Supreme Court decision” overturning Roe v. Wade.
“If you are a reputable business in Colorado Springs, the opportunity to grow your business has never been better,” he said. “The opportunity’s there because most businesses are overwhelmed … If you think a little bit outside the box, the opportunity’s there because nobody’s filling that niche.”
Organizations like the Black Chamber, Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber, Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center offer mentorship and funding opportunities.
“If you have a Black-owned business and you want somebody to help you do your business plan, that’s easier than it was 10 years ago,” Hasty said.
“Being a Black man owning a company in this current environment, I look at it as a plus,” he said. “It’s a little bit harder, but OK, life’s hard. Just get it done. … You only fail when you quit.”