By K. Dawn Rutledge, Ed.D.
NASHVILLE, TN — Black women have always used their ingenuity to turn lemons into lemonade. And that includes the world of business. One only needs to point to history to discover the entrepreneurial influence of trailblazers such as Madame C. J. Walker, who at the time of her death, was considered the wealthiest self-made Black woman in America.
“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it!,” Walker once said. “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Black women are starting businesses at faster rates than their white counterparts. From 2014 to 2019, the number of Black women-owned businesses grew 50% compared to 21% of overall women-owned businesses, according to the 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express.
Even with the odds stacked against them – from lack of capital and funding to biases and lack of representation – Black women are growing businesses at impressive rates.
Cynthia Whitfield-Story retired after a 39-year corporate career with Allstate and decided to take a leap of faith and open Inspire1, LLC, a consulting and coaching firm. The company, which focuses on executive leadership coaching, succession planning, strategy development and leveraging diversity, equity and inclusion in businesses and organizations, draws on the experience and skills that Whitfield-Story has amassed through the years coaching, supporting and mentoring leaders.
Whitfield-Story started her career with Allstate as a department manager before ultimately leading a $2 billion Southern regional operation as senior vice president, in which she grew agents and leadership, among her responsibilities.
“After my retirement from Allstate, I took time to think about my next move. I knew I wanted to do something very strategic and holistic, and live my passion. I wanted to give back in a different way,” said the New Jersey native of her decision to start the company.
Since arriving in Nashville in 2010, Whitfield-Story has immersed herself into the community serving on the boards for the Nashville YWCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, and Advancing Women in Nashville, to name a few.
“Connecting with community service work is a passion of mine, specifically working with children and helping women,” she said.
The Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce has been a resource for nurturing and connecting Black businesses and professionals in the Nashville area since 1998. Founded by Rosetta Miller Perry, publisher of The Tennessee Tribune and Contempora Magazine, the organization seeks to economically empower and sustain African American businesses through entrepreneurship and capitalistic activities. Carolyn Waller currently leads the 250+ organization as president and has taken entrepreneurship by the reins, placing emphasis on programming to help make connections for NBCC’s members, in which she said nearly 60% are women-owned businesses.
“There are lots of women paying close attention to the business environment, and instead of relying on corporate America, they understand and know they have talents they can leverage into their own enterprises,” Waller said.
Waller took her interest in Black art and her desire to share positive images of African Americans with her children and turned it into a business venture – Premier Art Décor and Designs Art Gallery.
Her first business location was on Nashville’s historic Music Row, where she opened a gallery showcasing and selling premier art décor and designs. Through the years, the business floated to other areas in the city, including North and East Nashville. She has also managed to balance her art business with a successful real estate business, which she started in 2005.
For Black women aspiring to start a business, Waller offers this advice: “It is important to set your priorities, establish a business plan and seek out professional services, such as accountants and bankers you can trust,” she said. “Take advice from people who have success and use that to lay your foundation. Start smart.”