Helina Melaku, left, is the owner of Konjo Me, an Ethiopian food pop up and catering service in Detroit. Redford resident John Frazer, center, owns The Sound Explosion record store in Inkster. Vittoria Katanski, right, is the executive director of Hatch Detroit, an entrepreneurship hub in partnership with Techtown Detroit.
By: Rasha Almulaiki and Sherri Kolade
This four-part series celebrates Detroit’s entrepreneurs, movers and shakers during Black Business Month in August. From honoring the path paved by local forerunners to supporting the present and up-and-coming businesses – the final story talks mom technology, COVID and small-business survival.
Black Business Month may be over for the year, but buying Black is always in season.
The city’s Black entrepreneurs and owners of business innovation hubs spoke to the Michigan Chronicle on the resilience, creativity and culture shifting to continue providing goods and services run by and for community members.
Konjo Me Owner Advises Black Women Entrepreneurs to “Be Bold!”
Helina Melaku is the owner of Konjo Me, an Ethiopian pop up and catering service in Detroit. Her business grew during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 as she began catering to community members in need.
“I was always passionate about cooking and feeding people overall,” said Melaku. “When I started, I decided to help those who did not have access to food. For example, restaurants were closed. People who already knew my cooking started reaching out to me more so I started doing catering orders. Also, in general, just learning about the business that came about during COVID.”
The strained economic conditions during the pandemic rattled the stability of numerous businesses, forcing many entrepreneurs to be more innovative in order to stay afloat.
“As a Black entrepreneur during COVID times, resources were limited,” said Melaku. “But I humbled myself and started going to businesses and started doing pop ups. So, there was a trial and error to figure out where in Detroit it was received well. So, the more we started doing it, people knew about the food and we kept going.”
“Konjo Me” means “Beautiful Me” in Ethiopian and reflects the inspiration behind the business to introduce Detroiters to Ethiopian food, culture and history.
“So, our goal was to educate people about Ethiopian food because there isn’t anything in Detroit. So, it wasn’t about just serving Ethiopian food, it was about educating people on what the food was, what it consists of, how to eat it, how healthy and nutritious it is for you.”
She said Black women in business often get stereotyped as being too aggressive, but they should not let this misconception stop them from working toward their goals.
“We are misunderstood in what we’re trying to put out there because we understand the lack of resources for Black people when it comes to Black products in general,” said Meluka. “I say to anyone looking to make something happen, ‘Be Bold!’”
Increasing Access to Capital and Support Networks
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), which offers business assistance services and capital programs for business attraction and acceleration, celebrates Black Business Month by highlighting the growth opportunities, initiatives and recent success stories for Black-owned businesses in Michigan
Established in 2004, Black Business Month is celebrated each August to recognize Black-owned businesses across the nation and the enormous impact they have on America’s prosperity. Small businesses are the backbone of the economy, and in Michigan, MEDC is committed to providing support, resources and opportunities they need to grow and thrive.
In May, Governor Gretchen Whitmer joined MEDC to announce that Michigan was approved for up to $236,990,950 in State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) funding from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Headquartered at Grand Valley State University and representing a long-term collaboration between the Small Business Administration and the State of Michigan, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) operates 11 regional offices and more than 20 satellite offices. The SBDC provides entrepreneurs and business owners with convenient access to consulting and training throughout Michigan at low or no cost.
Quentin L. Messer Jr., MEDC CEO, told the Michigan Chronicle previously that success is vital to Michigan’s small businesses, especially those in Detroit.
“We understand the importance that Detroit plays psychologically in the nation’s view — how they see Michigan,” Messer said. “You’re not going to be successful in Detroit without having a strong working relationship with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC).”
Inclusive economic development doesn’t happen by accident.
Through intentional work done by the DEGC, local minority-owned businesses and others can reap the rewards of a stronger, more stable economy despite the pandemic, looming economic uncertainties and staff shortages.
Kevin Johson, president and CEO of the DEGC, hangs his hat on the organization’s vision which firmly believes in steering the city’s economic development for all since being appointed to his position in 2018.
“Whether it was a large enterprise like Stellantis or Ford or a small business that covered our neighborhoods, our organization was developed and designed to help [businesses] make their first step on a path to success,” Johnson said of DEGC wins.
The DEGC and Detroit Means Business (DMB) joined forces in 2020 to help small businesses catch up as the pandemic took root in Michigan.
Now the DMB has broadened its focus and works to make Detroit a hub for small business success. This includes helping business owners with access to capital, addressing legislative issues that prevent business growth, providing skills training and e-commerce connectivity, driving diversity and inclusion and more, according to a press release.
“In our business, if we didn’t know how to pivot, we wouldn’t necessarily be the agency we needed to be,” Johnson said.
John Frazer, 65, of Redford, owns the Inkster-based used record store, The Sound Explosion. He said that after his retirement from Wayne County sewage and pump stations seven years ago, he wanted to go to his true love and his small business surviving COVID was no easy feat but well worth it.
“It’s been great I enjoy it. I enjoy records and music.” Frazer, who owns the 2,200 square-foot, self-standing store on Middlebelt Road at the corner of Carlysle, said. “It didn’t do me too bad, still had to pay the bills but I didn’t have no rent payments — that helped.”
Frazer does mostly in-store sales and was closed for almost two years due to the pandemic but he’s still pumping out records, turntables and more.
“I make a profit and also give good deals to people in the neighborhood,” he said, adding that people come from all over, including different countries. “They will come to hit the record shops in the area because Detroit is like the music capital; I have a great selection and great prices. … Like the old saying goes, ‘When you’re doing what you love you don’t work a day in your life.’ I live by that motto.”
Since 2011, Hatch Detroit has worked with 49 alumni start-up businesses. In recent partnership with entrepreneurial hub, Techtown Detroit, it supports emerging entrepreneurs with training, funding and guidance in navigating the local market.
Between 2020 to 2021, Hatch Detroit decided to hold off on its annual contest for new businesses and focused on supporting the 47 small and micro-businesses through the hardships of COVID.
Out of the 47 client businesses, 58 percent are owned by people of color and 78 percent are women-owned.
“We became very close, a lot of us during that time,” said Vittoria Katanski, executive director of Hatch Detroit. “Just talking about fears a lot of the small businesses [had] at that time. Everybody has their fears of the pandemic and you add into it the fear of owning a business and then eliminating their resources. We tried to be their support base.”
Along with temporary financial support with bills for overhead maintenance, Hatch Detroit also advised new business owners to reassess the architecture and layout of their brick and mortars to meet the changing demands during COVID.
Hatch Detroit is currently working to help open 16 new businesses, of that 88 percent are run by people of color and 94 percent are run by women.
“We are trying to keep up with what the recommendations were, like build out window walk ups for ordering or picking up, parking permits for carryout, open air seating and windows to allow for airflow,” said Katanski. “We really encourage businesses to think this might not just be a temporary issue, but something that might happen again, and to be proactive.”