‘Supporting Black Businesses Is Supporting Black People’
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Chris Echevarria is the founder of Blackstock & Weber, a New York-based lifestyle brand that’s geared toward what he calls the “discernible consumer.” He started the business two years ago out of his apartment in Brooklyn, after more than a decade working every job there is in fashion and retail. Since March, he’s had to shift and change course, just like every small-business owner in America, given the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns across the country. And in the two-and-a-half months since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which set off massive movements for social and economic justice for Black Americans—in the U.S. and around the world—Echevarria has reflected on the responsibility and opportunity of being a Black business owner.
On Aug. 1, B&W teamed up with several other brands to contribute to a capsule collection from the Philadelphia 76ers and fashion brand Lapstone and Hammer. Proceeds from the collection’s sales will go to support the Urban Affairs Coalition, a local organization that unites government, business, neighborhoods, and individual initiatives to improve the quality of life in the region, build wealth in urban communities, and solve emerging issues, including those related to economic inequality.
“It meant a lot just, having done all that we’ve done in two years’ time, to team up with a big team like the 76ers and be involved in something that had to do with the NBA. To take my creative vision and pair it with theirs to make products that give back to people who look like me, that’s huge,” Echevarria recently told Bloomberg News reporter Jordyn Holman. Here, the entrepreneur talks about the drive to build his own brand, and why, for a business like his to survive, it’s essential to keep the focus on Black America and Black-owned businesses.
When I was in high school, I worked at the Short Hills Mall, in New Jersey, and I got this itch for being around clothes and seeing what was new. My friends were all into clothes. Growing up in New Jersey, we would all skip school and hop on the train and come to New York, to see clothes and shop. That was my thing.
I got to a point where I had done all this work with other businesses and other companies—I’d done everything from work on a shop floor, as a trend forecaster, wholesale agent, and then later on as an agent for several brands coming from the European market over to the North American market. I was like, “If I can do all this great work with other people, there’s no reason that I can’t start my own.”
So I started the business out of my apartment two years ago. I hooked up with a footwear manufacturer that I knew out of England, ordered some shoes, designed some shoes, and then a week or two later, I had 500 pairs of shoes in my living room. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with them, but 19 days after those 500 pairs landed, I had sold through all of them. I knew that if I could figure out supply chain, design process, and trying to manufacture that and sell a high-price shoe, I could sell a T-shirt or an Oxford any day.
A year into the business, we had done $1.2 million in sales and it was just me. Then it was me and four friends. Now our team is all over the place—in New York, New Jersey, and as far as Frankfurt, Germany. We’re all working toward this common goal of creating what we hope will be an international fashion brand.
All of our product is footwear. We do biweekly drops of different styles. Usually they sell out within a week. We were scheduled to release new product, but once the pandemic hit it seemed like it wasn’t the right time, emotionally. Also, we had issues from the supply chain perspective where product just hadn’t hit the shores. We had to pivot our messaging and talk to our customers and the people who were waiting for stuff. “Hey, we understand that you are looking for product, but right now it just doesn’t seem like the time, just based on what everyone is doing,” we said. There were weeks when we didn’t sell anything. It was difficult, but it gave us a lot of time to restructure and think about how we can proceed in the future.
It’s not only Black-owned businesses, everybody has had it hard—but there is that systemic portion of racism that everyone is focused on right now and we’re having a lot more conversations. I think that there is a larger understanding from a broad perspective that African American businesses and people tend to get the short end of the stick.
Most people, if they notice your business is Black-owned, sometimes they’ll sort of look at it as if it’s second-rate. That’s a part of that systemic racism within our culture. Now as people open their eyes, they’re like, “We overlooked a lot of these businesses that are selling comparable or even better merchandise than a lot of these more prominent companies that aren’t run by people of color.” I feel like we’re getting our time in the sun, but I hope that it’s not just a flash in the pan.
Sometimes it’s a couple of days, sometimes it’s a week where people talk about supporting Black businesses. Sometimes it’s on the holiday, or sometimes it’s within Black History Month. It’s whenever there is a story behind it, we have these moments where there is an influx of support to Black-owned businesses and more of an amplification of our presence in the market. How do you make the amplification a part of your life?
This latest push feels like it’s sustaining a lot longer—and it feels like people aren’t just doing it to be politically correct, they are doing it because they actually see the value in Black-owned businesses. That’s a direct result of the value or the conversation that everyone is having around police brutality and systemic racism.
It all started on social media—I would see a bunch of posts on different accounts that said, “Hey, these are accounts that are Black-owned businesses,” whether a fashion company or whatever. People were amplifying Black-owned companies through their own social platforms, having people tag their favorite Black-owned business, ones they supported in the past. Our community did a really good job of posting our social channels on those threads, and we got a lot of hits as a result of that.
There was one occasion where Shopify tweeted out “Tag Your Favorite Black Business.” We got tagged under that thread on Twitter and got an explosion of interest. There have been several instances, whether it’s on Instagram or Twitter or word of mouth even. And it’s more of a multiracial push, people from all sorts of backgrounds that are supporting Black businesses. It’s time.
The realization by some people of the realities of the day-to-day lives of people of color are going to be very instrumental in pushing the agenda forward. It may have just been within the city where there was a killing or there was injustice. But the protests [after George Floyd’s killing], these uprisings were all across the world. It will be very hard to ignore in the future.
Supporting Black businesses is supporting Black people. It’s helping Black people get a leg up in ways that injustice and racism have kept us down. I think that buying from a Black-owned business isn’t just money in someone else’s pocket, it’s a large chain of events. You buy a pair of shoes from me or you buy something from any other Black-owned business, that not only helps keep them in business longer but that allows them to be able to influence the next generation of Black business owners.
What if this Buy Black movement lasts a little bit longer than the other ones but at the end of the day ultimately fizzles out? What if it doesn’t become something that people continue to live by? I hope this is something that continues. I think there are different ways that the movement continues to radiate. It is not just supporting Black-owned businesses, it might be hiring Black creatives, it might be considering the Black person or a person of color that hasn’t been considered for the job before. I hope that it continues to permeate its way through the culture. The most important focus here for me at least is to continue to do what I always do to get people to understand that this is a way of life. This is something that you have to integrate into your being. This is what you have to be, from now on. You have to look for the Black alternative because it’s not going to be in front of you. —As told to Jordyn Holman
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.