The Experience of a Black Business Owner in the Bay Area
By Doris Kiambati
“The new definition of freedom today is self determination,” says prominent entrepreneur John Hope Bryant. History has taught us that Black people in the United States have suffered tremendously under the U.S. government. Black people in the United States have effectively been disenfranchised and disadvantaged; thus affecting Black income per capita and standard of living. One way Black people have effectively rebelled against the institution is by starting their own businesses. By using financial independence as a way to sustain their communities, Black businesses thrive and so too do their communities.
There has been much progress in the United States since then, but the story of Black business is still dim. This is due mostly due to institutional racism and the lack of tolerance in our society. Unfortunately, Berkeley, Calif. and surrounding areas are not free of this trend. Black business owners continue to face racism from institutions and from clients as well. But Black business is important and is here to stay. My mother, Wangari Kiambati, is one of many whose story proves this point. Wangari owns a small caregiving business serving developmentally disabled individuals. In an interview with The BCC Voice, she describes her experience:
What inspired you to start your business and why?
“I came to this country in December of 2002, and in 2003 I got a full time job as a school teacher. I was working the job, I was taking care of two girls and I was also going to school. Finally, I got a second job working as a caregiver because I wanted experience in the business that I started. It was hard; it was very hard. You learn how to juggle. You learn how to leave your kids in the house for a minute and you’re gone — you are praying ‘Wow, I hope nothing happens’ but everything was okay and I appreciate that my kids were very disciplined and they helped in that.”
What goods/services do you provide?
“I am a small-business owner. It is a supported living services company called Community Anchor Services, based in Sacramento but serving people in the Bay Area as well. What that means is, we take care of people with developmental disabilities. We partner with the regional center. We go to these people’s homes and help them live independently in their own homes/apartments and they live in the community. We help them do that successfully. The caregivers help them get around, give them rides, or accompany them to stuff they wanna do in their community. They help them with planning meals — you know, just normal things you and I can do without help. But it’s very good help for them.”
Did you find difficulty in starting your business and was any of that difficulty attributed to your race?
“Of course every business person, every person who is trying to succeed is going to have difficulty. Even in my teaching, believe it or not some kids were very mean. I never took it personally — Never! Because I knew how I was as a teenager. Another thing is that as a Black woman people do not believe in you. Even your friends — I learned to surround myself with people who did believe in me. And I learned to believe in myself.”
Did you ever face direct racism?
“Lots. Even with clients who said they didn’t want to be served by me [because I was Black]. Once I showed up to a client’s house — and I had talked to them on the phone multiple times — but once they saw me they said they did not want the service.”
Why is supporting Black business important?
“I am passionate about that. We all need role models, we all need people who look like us, we all need to see someone ahead of us because we cannot do it alone. We all need someone to guide us in whatever we are doing. We need to support our communities; we need to support our friends and relatives. So, if a Black person is successful they are going to support those who are close to them before they go to the masses. It is important to support those who are your own.”
The African principle of Sankofa tells us that we should reach back to people who are behind us and help them come up to where we are. The following advice is for anyone who is looking to start their own business. “You can do it. Find a mentor who is willing to pour their life into you. You will start learning from them, you will find out how to be successful. Go to seminars and read books. It is important to keep developing yourself. Your business will grow when you grow,” says Wangari Kiambati.
The Ghanaian symbol of Sankofa. Illustration Credit: Damiyr Saleem Studios
We can help Black business by supporting it. Support your local Black business. Checkout https://webuyblack.com for a list of Black business in Berkeley and surrounding areas.