When John T. Ward, a free African American living in Richmond, VA, moved to a farm in Columbus, OH in 1836 with his wife, he probably wasn’t aware that he was going to make history several decades later.
After using his farm as a stop on the historic Underground Railroad until the titanic American Civil War broke out, he joined his son, William S. Ward, to launch EE Ward Moving & Storage in 1881 – the nation’s first and oldest African American-owned business. The company has thrived and is still operating today as an industrial moving and storage company. In 2001, Ward’s descendants sold the business to family friends Brian Brooks and Otto Beatty.
A Lasting Legacy
The only thing more remarkable than the fact that the company is still thriving today is the legacy Ward and his son left behind after they started it. Indeed, if small businesses are the backbone of the US economy, African American-owned businesses are the backbone of small businesses.
According to the US Census Bureau, since Ward and his son launched their endeavor in 1881, the number of African American-owned small businesses has continued to grow. Also according to the US Census Bureau, as of 2020 there are 134,567 black-owned small businesses in the U.S, with about $133.7 billion in sales revenue and $40.5 billion in combined payroll. Just under 30% of those businesses are in health care and the social assistance sector, the largest percentages out of any minority-owned small business group.
This Week’s Spotlight
Kapitus is proud to celebrate every African American small business owner who has followed in the footsteps of John T. Ward by overcoming the odds and following his or her dreams and passions to successfully run their own small business. Each week during Black History Month (February 2022), Kapitus will profile one of these businesses.
To kick off the celebrations, Kapitus had the honor of interviewing Adria Marshall, owner and founder of five-year-old Ecoslay, which produces environmentally friendly hair care products in Avondale Estates, GA. The company has handled more than 300,000 orders since it began.
Following Her Personal Passion
Marshall was inspired to launch the company after spending 16 years experimenting with various hair products, seeking what she called “The Holy Grail of hair care.” She found that she could grow many of the ingredients in her garden, and it quickly developed into a passion.
“I discovered that natural ingredients worked far better for my own hair than the ones that I couldn’t even pronounce nor easily access. And from this realization, Ecoslay was born,” she said.
For the first year in operation, Marshall and her oldest daughter, Sydney (who still works for the company), spent long hours in their kitchen making natural hair care products, boxing them up, and taking them to the 24-hour post office near their house on a daily basis. The company has since grown to five employees. Like many small business owners, Marshall has found that following her passions instead of working in the corporate world paid off. While her journey has been exhilarating and exhausting, the rewards of doing something that she loves and being financially independent have been well worth it.
“Black owned and operated, we popped onto the map when we released our Orange Marmalade flaxseed and aloe curl definer in 2018,” she said. “We now have over 40K followers on social media and can be found in over 100 stores worldwide…I’ve always believed that it’s best to work in a field that lights your passion because the work doesn’t feel like work at all. Being passionate about hair care and gardening, starting an eco-friendly hair product company was a natural fit for me. I rarely ever realize that I’m working because it’s so much fun.”
Barriers Still Need to be Broken
While the US has come a long way when it comes to providing opportunities for minorities, Marshall still faced challenges in starting Ecoslay – especially being a woman of color in business.
“Being a Black-owned business comes with several stereotypes,” she said. “You combine that with being woman-owned, and there are quite a few barriers that still need to be broken down. Often-times vendors, merchants and partners are seemingly surprised at our professionalism, growth, tech-savviness, eco-consciousness and effective product range. As the world becomes a bit smaller, it’s been nice to see the tides start to turn – we welcome the opportunity to continue to push boundaries and change mindsets.”
Customer Service is Key
While offering great products is imperative for any small business, Marshall said what differentiates her company is customer service,
“Our world is becoming more and more impersonal each day,” said Marshall. “Outstanding customer service is a way to make someone feel special – like more than just a number. Giving our customers a great experience from the moment that they discover us on social to how we follow up with them after their purchase falls directly in line with our Kindness core value. Even if the customer is unhappy with their products, we feel that it’s critical that they feel special and valued.”
Facing Today’s Challenges
Like every other small business in America, Marshall is also facing the tidal wave of rising inflation,
supply chain disruptions and worker shortages. Being a small business owner, however, means being tough in all situations, she said.
“Small business owners naturally have quite a bit of grit,” she said. “Every day, we fly by the seat of our pants as we navigate social media changes, tax laws, shipping regulations, international trade rules, insurance requirements. The list goes on and on. So, honestly, when the pandemic hit, it was just another set of challenges for us.
“Yes, the degree of supply chain disruption, staff impacts and purchasing patterns was more extreme, but we were relatively easily able to dig deep and find creative solutions for these problems. Our revenue actually doubled during the pandemic, enabling us to increase our charity contributions so that we could bless our community and like-minded businesses in need.”
Who Else Will We Meet This Month?
As Black History Month marches on, Kapitus will travel to Chicago to profile a remarkable young attorney Maria M. Barlow, who overcame the odds and societal barriers to launch her own law firm for underserved residents in her community.