Kevyn Lee-Wellington, owner of Fluffy’s Sno-Balls on Long Beach Boulevard, was less than 10 months into running his New Orleans-style shaved ice business when he connected with the local Black Business Strategies program, a new initiative aimed at reducing inequities that Black-owned small businesses face.

With 15 years of business experience, Lee-Wellington didn’t feel like a novice in the entrepreneurship world, but he did feel challenged by ongoing marketing issues and a lack of access to capital, he said.

Over 12 weeks, Lee-Wellington attended virtual workshops and received training and business strategy guidance from the Black Business Strategies instructors.

By the end of the program, Lee-Wellington left feeling more confident in his marketing skills and with an improved sense of his target audience, he said.

“I walked in with 15 years of leadership experience working as a former vice president of operations for US Foods, a multi-million dollar corporation, and I still found it extremely valuable, and I was extremely proud to be a part of the cohort,” Lee-Wellington said.

As a collaboration between the Los Angeles Regional Small Business Development Center at Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach’s College of Business, the idea to create a program geared toward Black business owners stemmed from the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, said community leader and Miller Foundation President Darick Simpson.

“Black businesses traditionally have been the heartbeat or the cornerstone of our communities—a sense of pride, a sense of employment, a sense of engagement,” Simpson said.

Pandemic challenges

Addressing the inequities that many Black business owners face, especially since the pandemic, is a key goal of the program, said Simpson.

Black businesses experienced the highest rates of closures since the pandemic compared to other groups—the number of Black business owners dropped 41% from February to April 2020, according to Reuters.

To help overcome those and other challenges, Black Business Strategies’ core tenets are to provide access to capital, education, consulting and technical assistance, lead advisor and program manager Joseph Jackson said.

“Many business owners become so immersed in the day-to-day operations of their business, they get lost in some of the other key aspects that are necessary and important for success,” Jackson said.

Over the course of 12 weeks, participants study components of business that are useful for virtually any business owner, including fiscal assistance, marketing strategies and more, said Jackson.

“Those particular issue areas translate well for not only new business owners, but for individuals who’ve been in business a long time who want to refresh their understanding of particular key issue areas,” Jackson said.

Even before the pandemic, Black businesses have long faced disparities in funding and access to capital, which hinders their ability to be sustainable, Jackson said. Meanwhile, awareness of business support services and access to them have been in short supply.

“The objective was to focus on this underserved community,  ensure that they were aware of the resources available to them, and curate webinars that touched on core topics essential for business success, and make it available to them so that they can maximize their potential and hopefully bring to fruition the dreams that they have for the enterprise,” Jackson said.

Finding new opportunities

As a result of the knowledge gained during his time in the program, Fluffy’s Sno-Balls has earned seven certifications, including distinction as a minority business enterprise, Lee-Wellington said.

The business has also been certified with Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, creating the possibility of opening up in California airports, along with certifications from the United States Black Business Chamber and the City of Long Beach, Lee-Wellington said.

Applying for these certifications “is not a very easy process,” said Lee-Wellington, and Black Business Strategies was able to guide him through the applications.

“In terms of what the program did for me, I found it quite insightful,” Lee-Wellington said. “They go above and make sure you’re connected with experts in terms of your business.”

Lee-Wellington would encourage any Black entrepreneur to participate in future cohorts, he said.

“BBS is important to Long Beach because as we all know, Black and brown people have been marginalized and taken out of the process overall,” Lee-Wellington said.

Particularly since the pandemic, many entrepreneurs realized that they couldn’t depend on government assistance, and they had to figure out how to create opportunities for themselves, Lee-Wellington said.

“Having a BBS program allows entrepreneurs to gain that insight that they ordinarily wouldn’t be privy to,” Lee-Wellington said. “It does create the opportunity for you to invest in yourself intellectually.”

Lee-Wellington is now looking for ways to expand his business past the traditional brick-and-mortar by branching out into catering and creating merchandise—ideas that grew from his time in the Black Business Strategies cohort, he said.

Fluffy’s Sno-Balls has also increased its revenue since Lee-Wellington was a part of the program, experiencing its largest sales month in the company’s history, he said.

“I’ve run companies as an employee, but never as a CEO,” he said. “It’s helped me reshape and reframe my perspective by taking a look at everything in my business.”

A new cohort

On Sept. 22, the Black Business Strategies program began its fifth cohort of Black business owners.

Since 2020, over 42 businesses have graduated from the program, including other Long Beach businesses such as Village Treasures, Forgotten Images, and DreamKreator Studio.

Current participants span from across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and represent businesses in landscape design, early childhood education and development, cleaning, therapy and more. The current cohort includes one Long Beach business: Learning Associates, LLC.

Each participant has specific outcomes they’d like to achieve, including scaling their businesses, maximizing sales capacity and attaining the visions they have in mind for their business.

“Each new member seems very enthusiastic and eager to get started, and the level of interest was definitely high,” said Jackson. “We’ve seen that with previous cohorts as well. With each new cohort, the level of energy just seems to expand as they recognize what can be achieved through some of the information that’s going to be available.”

Jackson hopes to implement a network of support and a searchable database moving forward that can also act as a resource for both alumni and current Black Business Strategies participants, he said.

Simpson hopes that in the future, the program will be able to do youth outreach, showing the entrepreneurs of the future that their talents can become strengths on which to build a career, he said.

Additionally, he hopes to create a network of support for business owners of color that not only has technical expertise but also demonstrates how to be corporate citizens in the community, Simpson said.

He hopes that participating businesses will reach a point where they can give back or have enough staff to volunteer, he said.

“Business and life is about relationships,” Simpson said. “If you aren’t so worried about keeping the doors open, then you can look forward to tomorrow and next week.”