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A city with a civil rights history works to uplift Black businesses

As of two years ago, Birmingham, Alabama had the lowest rate of Black business ownership of any big city in America.
A city with a civil rights history works to uplift Black businesses
Posted at 1:55 PM, Oct 26, 2023

Birmingham, Alabama is a city with a legacy. It's a legacy of Black perseverance in the Deep South, and of civil rights successes forged through trauma.

Within that legacy, a business like that of Tanesha Sims-Summers should feel entwined. Yet for too long, her company, Naughty But Nice, was an exception.

Before she launched Birmingham's premier popcorn vendor, Sims-Summers worked in finance and saw inequity.

"It's like, you know, I'm sitting on this side," she said. "You have a person of color maybe trying to get something as small as a personal loan or a home equity line of credit, and they either didn't have enough equity or they just didn't have the credit score ... And I saw the biggest challenge there was just the lack of knowledge, you know, generation after generation of just not knowing how to play the game."

Black Americans make up more than two-thirds of Birmingham's population, the fourth-highest percentage in the country. But two years back, the Brookings Institution found, among America's 53 largest metros, it had the lowest rate of Black business ownership.

That's the backdrop not just for Sims-Summers, but for the group tasked with lifting her company and community.

SEE MORE: Black-owned businesses saw post-pandemic boom, but challenges remain

"We started saying, 'We're here for the long haul,'" said Angela Abdur-Rasheed. She runs community engagement for Prosper, a nonprofit powered by civic and business leaders with the goal of a more equitable city.

"When you think about Birmingham and you think about the impact that it has had," said Abdur-Rasheed, "not just on the United States but on the world, it's a shame."

Prosper's funding has enabled it to commit tens of millions  of dollars to different programs, from workforce development for high schoolers to financial grants for companies to training to help small businesses scale up.

That's how they helped Sims-Summers and her husband and chief marketing officer, Clem.

"My husband, who was still in his corporate job, he was laid off," said Sims-Summers. "When that happened, I felt it was critical that he kind of jumped on the train. We went through the supplier scale program. And just to really shorten that learning curve was the biggest benefit."

Prosper is among a rising number of inclusion-based initiatives in cities from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Memphis. But what stands out in its messaging and its efforts is its belief in Birmingham. Everything the organization does appears to aim at connecting and lifting those already here.

"We're trying to erase 400 years of intentional exclusion," said Abdur-Rasheed, "Four hundred years of leaving Black people, women, people of color, out of conversations, out of the room where decisions are made out of business. We don't run programs. We fund and support and steward work that's already being done on a community level so that it can be done in a way that's inclusive and that's lasting."

In other words, it's about creating a new legacy, for both a city of such history and the families building a future.

"My personal mantra is if you're going to doubt anything, doubt your limits," Sims-Summers said. "And the evolution of this city and even our company has shown me that."

SEE MORE: A successful Black business owner is helping others thrive

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