Jasmine Norton has spent the past few months preparing to open The Urban Oyster, her sit-down restaurant, in Hampden in late summer.

Norton has relocated, scaled her business and adjusted concepts about a half-dozen times since beginning the Urban Oyster concept almost seven years ago.

Believed to be the only Black woman in the state to own a brick-and-mortar, oyster-themed restaurant, Norton cited living in Maryland as one of the reasons she has been able to pivot and succeed.

“I don’t think that I would still have a business, especially with what we had to deal with in terms of a global pandemic, without our city and the people that believe in us,” said the 35-year-old Canton resident. “If I’m being honest, when the pandemic surfaced, we were making more money during the pandemic because people wanted us to stay afloat. Every pivotal moment, our supporters have shown up so that we can be successful.”

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A new study by Lendio has ranked Maryland as the second-best state in the country for minority entrepreneurs to succeed. (Hawaii was first and Montana was last.)

The study looked at a myriad of factors, including income inequality through Census data, the Black-white unemployment rate ratio, the minority business ownership rate measured as the share of businesses owned by a person of color, new businesses (under two years old) that are owned by minorities, the percentage change in the number of Community Advantage loan approvals, and Community Reinvestment Act loan sums for small business owners with revenues of $1 million or less.

In Maryland, 24% of businesses are minority-owned, according to the study. And when it comes to startups, nearly 30% of them are minority-owned. In addition, the job growth at minority-owned businesses in Maryland is 59%.

The study also revealed that the number of businesses owned by Black, Hispanic and Asian American people has reached a record high — about 1.2 million in 2020, which is up more than 50% compared to 2007. Still, people of color make up 40% of the population but only own 20% of U.S. businesses.

“Not all business owners have equal opportunities to succeed,” the study found. “In particular, minority entrepreneurs face barriers in accessing the capital they need to start and grow their businesses — even in the top-ranked states.”

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Gov. Wes Moore’s office said the study was good news, but said there was room for improvement.

“While being named the second-best state for minority entrepreneurs to succeed is definitely cause for celebration, the governor recognizes we have much more work to do if we are going to make the next decade Maryland’s,” said spokesman Carter Elliott. “Maryland was also named the 47th worst state in the country to start a business, and the governor knows we must do everything in our power to help the small business owners and entrepreneurs that are the overwhelming driving force behind Maryland’s economy.”

Elliott pointed out that over the last ten years, Maryland has set a Minority Business Enterprise participation goal and failed to meet it every single year, missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

Moore issued an executive order to strengthen participation, compliance and accountability for the program, the spokesman said.

“When focused on the right priorities, the governor has the power to change things quickly — the MBE program is a prime example of that,” Elliott said.

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Reasons for success

Linda Loubert, an associate professor economics at Morgan State University, is not surprised by the findings in the study — particularly Maryland’s high ranking.

Loubert pointed to the state’s large percentage of wealthy Black people, its burgeoning tech industry, its diverse immigrant population, its concentration of historically Black colleges and universities, and its number of support systems and programs geared toward minority business success.

“Therefore, you have higher education levels and desires to not just be at a job where you are not satisfied. Having business schools and a lot of push to understand finances helps,” she said. “What I’m seeing is the fact that folks want to make money and they want to make their own money.”

Loubert mentioned the opportunities that exist in Maryland — particularly for Black people. And it starts early in Maryland, she said.

Her grandson, who is in seventh grade, has already been exposed to programs that encourage entrepreneurship, she said. He participates in one program, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship; another one is coordinated by Associated Black Charities, a Baltimore-based racial equity organization.

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The Lendio study did not look at factors such as HBCUs, the immigrant population, the tech industry, and the concentration of wealth among Black residents, although a spokesperson for the study said that these were “interesting” points that could be evaluated in future studies.

Jasmine Simms is the owner of Scrub Nail Salon in Fells Point. She is also co-founder of the Baltimore-based National Association of Mom Entrepreneurs.

Jasmine Simms, who co-founded the National Association of Mom Entrepreneurs in 2014 with Tammira Lucas, also is not surprised by Maryland’s high ranking given the large population of Black women.

“Looking at the demographics of cities like Baltimore, a lot of the times the households are run by Black women,” Simms explained. “A lot of entrepreneurship starts with supplemental income. What it ends up becoming is that they notice they have more skills in that area. A lot of the time they look for the resources to make them grow. That leads to legacy building and generational wealth.”

Simms said that many of these businesses launched by Black women start from need.

“I don’t think it’s always intentional that they want to start a business,” said Simms, who became a licensed nail technician at the age of 17 after being interested in a career in cosmetology.

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Simms’ organization has helped start more than 400 mom-owned businesses in Maryland since it formed. The organization has also worked with Morgan State to offer services to formerly incarcerated people.

“It’s very hard for them to find jobs,” Simms explained. “We’re able to give them the resources that they need so that they can start businesses the right way.”

Developer P. David Bramble — who leads the project rebuilding Harborplace in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Maryland — on Nov. 18, 2022. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Carving out spaces in downtown Baltimore

Several efforts have been made to help Black businesses in and around downtown Baltimore.

The Downtown Partnership in conjunction with Fearless, a Black-led technology company, has been the title sponsor for the Downtown BOOST (Black-Owned and Operated Storefront Tenancy) Program. Several other companies including BGE were also involved in supporting the initial group of five Black businesses as they moved into vacant storefront spaces. The goal initially was to target online businesses looking to become brick-and-mortar spots.

“To many who are not from our city, downtown is the face of Baltimore. The businesses in Downtown Baltimore’s storefronts speak to the character of our city. BOOST helps ensure Downtown is representative of the city overall and is providing a signature Baltimore experience,” said Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

The BOOST program offers its cohorts $50,000 in grants to support build-out and operations (up to $20,000 toward the interior improvements of the retail space; up to $10,000 for exterior improvements and signage; and a potential $20,000 BGE Energizing Small Business Grants for qualifying applicants).

The second cohort of the BOOST program, which will be announced July 13, is supported by Guinness Open Gate Brewery and BGE.

“It is vital that Black and minority-owned businesses are represented in this landscape, and it’s our job as a convener of downtown to ensure we’re supporting these entrepreneurs and leveraging the available funding to ensure their success,” Stokes said.

In the nearby Inner Harbor, P. David Bramble, the developer charged with revitalizing the iconic area, has stated that he will focus on attracting Black businesses.

Bramble wants to make the best use of the existing Pratt Street and Light Street pavilions as he comes up with a redevelopment plan. He will fill empty retail spaces with small local vendors such as Crust by Mack.

In addition to working with the BOOST program, Bramble’s lending company will try to assist qualified businesses, with the goal of providing a permanent space for some at the redeveloped site.

Amanda Mack (far right), shows her family, (from right to left): Yvonne Roy (grandmother), Michelle Vessells (aunt), and Tiffany Wingate (mother), blueprints of her restaurant renovation in Harborplace in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 11, 2023. Amanda is the first new tenant of the newly imagined redeveloped Harborplace. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Creating networks, opportunity in tech

Loubert said that looking at the Lendio study, it became obvious that the states that were ranked toward the top also had a strong connection to the tech industry.

For example, 56% of all investments in the last three years have gone to minority founders, according to TEDCO, a Columbia-based, Black-led company whose mission is to “identify, invest in, and help grow technology companies in Maryland”

“The national average is between 2% to 10%, [meaning] we are at least five times the national average,” according to Jack Miner, TEDCO’s chief investment officer.

UpSurge — a company that provides resources, networking and a community for technology entrepreneurs with the hope of creating equity within that industry — has been trying to assist tech companies in the Baltimore area.

“I would say we are so close to reaching critical mass for the tech industry in Baltimore,” said Kory Bailey, chief ecosystem and relationship officer for UpSurge.

Bailey said there is “alignment happening.” It includes grassroots organizations incubating businesses such as the Black Butterfly Network and the associated Black Butterfly Exchange and Light of Baltimore incubator; entrepreneurship programs at universities such as the Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ FastForward, Loyola’s Angel investing course, Morgan State’s entrepreneurship program and Towson StarTUp; accelerators like CVL and Techstars; and corporate programs such as 1501 Health by CareFirst & LifeBridge and 2c2i by Exelon.

UpSurge hosts Equitech Tuesdays, a weekly networking happy hour with an emphasis on diverse members of the technology industry.

“Equitech Tuesday has been a critical connection point for people from these different stakeholder groups to meet, learn about each other, and begin to envision what it would look like to work together,” Bailey said.

Bailey said he’s encouraged by the momentum in Maryland.

“A lot of the hard work key leaders and contributors to our tech ecosystem have been putting in over the last two to three years is beginning to show dividends,” he said.

Challenges persist

Financial obstacles still exist for minority business owners.

“There are still systemic policies and practices we have to get right. Most of the funding and lending happening in Maryland is for small business creation and that is great. But for high growth ventures like [those that Black women founders] are creating, funding is still abysmal,” Bailey said. “We continue to see less than 1% of venture funding going to Black women. In Baltimore, we’re working with an aligned group of partners to change that.”

According to the Lendio study, 52% of white entrepreneurs are fully approved for financing, compared to 35% of Asian entrepreneurs, 28% of Hispanic entrepreneurs and 27% of Black entrepreneurs. According to the National Minority Supplier Development Council, 40% of Black business owners don’t even apply for financing because they expect they’ll be rejected.

Maryland saw a 10.3% jump in Community Advantage loan approvals from 2021 to 2022, beating every state except New York. In addition, Maryland distributes more business loans to underserved communities ($389 per capita) compared to the national average ($351 per capita) through the federal Community Reinvestment Act, the Lendio study states.

Financing has been the biggest obstacle for Lane Harlan, the restaurant and bar owner behind Clavel, W.C. Harlan, Fadensonnen and the newly opened speakeasy bar, The Coral Wig. Harlan started to build her businesses when she opened her first establishment in 2012.

“At the age of 25 I went seeking a place to build a bar,” she recalled. “Here I was a college dropout — I had finished my political science degree, yet was unable to graduate due to failing math 101 multiple times — and I was trying to open a bar without signage, TVs, happy hour or vodka cocktails. I was not a likely candidate for investors or bank support.”

Harlan, 36, credited the Baltimore community for supporting her from day one. She attributed some of her success to being an “autodidact” — a constant learner — which she said was inspired by her Filipino heritage.

“My mother, Lola, would never let anyone leave our potluck without carrying out Ziploc bags of adobo and pandesol bread to take home,” Harlan recalled. “I was born to create bounty in my community. The people who have the least, give the most. Hospitality is in my blood.”

Jasmine Norton, owner of The Urban Oyster, poses for a portrait in Hamden on June 22, 2023. The Urban Oyster will be opening up on 36th Street at the end of summer. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Norton said she has received grants from the BASE Network program run by the Baltimore Development Corp. as well as a grant from BGE. She has also received loans from Baltimore Community Lending and Ignite Capital, which are both community development financial institutions in Baltimore. Norton’s networks also introduced her to Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses cohort.

“It’s just a matter of having a strong network and engaging those networks to find those programs,” Norton said. “The opportunities to grow are definitely out there. It’s just about doing the work.”

Norton said she is looking forward to unveiling her new restaurant at the end of the summer.

“I think being a Black person contributes to being successful,” said Norton who graduated from Bowie State University. “I think our institutions [HBCUs] play a part. But it’s also our ability to survive. That is instilled in us before we go to school. We have always been equipped with those skills. Those resources we learn in school or our upbringing they do show up in entrepreneurship.”

johnj.williams@thebaltimorebanner.com

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years. 

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