2020 was a landmark year when it came to visible support for black-owned businesses.
But for Dr. Lakeysha Hallmon, that quest began back in 2016 when she founded The Village Market ATL - an incubator of sorts that aims to create the ideal conditions for people of color to start and scale profitable local businesses.
In 2020, Dr. Key took it a step further. Right in the middle of the global pandemic, she opened The Village Retail.
The Atlanta co-op brings some of the best black businesses under one communal roof, with a model that is simultaneously incredibly innovative and socially primal.
Dr. Key’s team was hesitant to support the concept. But she’s always been one to follow her own instincts and draw up her own blueprints for success.
She’s acted wisely on all fronts - today The Village Market ATL has helped funnel over $5.3 million dollars to Black-owned businesses across the nation, while The Village Retail sales are skyrocketing.
The haves versus the have-nots
Dr. Key has always been conscious of the divide between people who live comfortably and people who struggle. In Atlanta, the majority of businesses consist of sole proprietors, and the income attained by black business versus non-black businesses is shocking.
This is simply one indicator of a systemic divide that is a plague the world over: the unfair difference between people who live easily and those who don’t, regardless of how hard they work. What started as informal coaching sessions at a local Atlanta coffee shop soon became a greater vision. Dr. Key knew she wanted to inject the power of scalable growth into communities of color by helping budding entrepreneurs.
“What I tell folks all the time, every major city - as great as Atlanta is, Atlanta also has the great divide between the have and the have-nots. What's the true story of the have-nots? And how are you birthed in that quote unquote ‘have-not’ pathway? What makes you stay there? And then what is the divider between the haves?
In my research for truly understanding entrepreneurship, scaling small businesses, I found in Atlanta as amazing as it is, 96% of the businesses here are sole proprietors. These single-member ran companies.
“And the average revenue for black businesses is right under $50,000. And for a non-black business is over $700,000 in Atlanta. That was the wow for me. I understood from that day forward, it didn't matter how much I supported my friends. Would that support mature into actual scalable growth, where they can begin to hire the first and second employee and boost the economy in which they live? Because it is more likely for those who are black and brown to hire people who are black and brown.”
Putting community first
In essence, The Village aims to hearken back to an earlier, simpler, more primal time, when community members worked together regularly to replenish both their material goods and their spirits. The goal was to encourage not just black residents to start businesses, but to get community members to buy from them.
To this end, The Village Retail functions like an incubator - and it takes all of the right conditions to make it a thriving success. Businesses participate in regular workshops and activities, while shoppers are educated on the stories behind those businesses and encouraged to spread the “shop local” evangelism. The Village therefore isn’t just a name: it’s a reality in the truest sense of the word: a shared space where everybody is local, everybody matters, and everybody supports one another.
“We are driven by community. I didn't create a business model. I built community.”
“I built a community where everyone understood their marching orders. In order to be a business inside of The Village, a Villager, then you're required to operate in the highest level of excellence. And excellence is not perfection. Excellence means when we have an incubator, you'd be a part of it. We have workshops for small businesses, you will be a part of it. And always be in a place of refinement. That's for the brands and for the businesses.
However for the community, the community is very clear. That in The Village, it is an action. That you are buying from black businesses, that you're offering services. That the most simple things that we can all do. When you are in our retail store, that you are actually posting on Instagram that you're there, and getting other people to come in. And so there are so many verticals on what support looks like when it comes to The Village.”
The legacy of Black Wall Street
By creating a culture of black successes, Dr. Key hopes to battle against the grim history of what happened at Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street was a prosperous African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1921, it burned to ground when a violent mob reacted to the alleged rape of a white woman.
In many ways, Dr. Key says that the legacy of Black Wall Street lingers on today. Due to the trauma of seeing a thriving community destroyed, one remnant is an every-man-for-himself mentality. In order to boost the economy, the need to change that mindset is more important than ever.
“I always believe in order to truly advance whatever mission, you have to know where you come from. And for black people, we come from cooperative economics. When we build community within community. And of course the heartbreaking history of Black Wall Street and the massacre that took place there, that's also true of America.”
“And so when we see black people less likely to work together, we also have to tell the truth about a theme. Where we had prosperous communities, bombs have been dropped on that prosperity. And that fear can be debilitating and paralyzing. And so it pushes you in a corner - let me quietly work and only fend for my own. But that is by design.
But what the blueprint is that the design was built, that we must truly understand what it means to be each other's keeper, but also how to have the shared lived experience. And how it truly boosts the economy. And we have a tangible example of what happened 100 years ago with some of the most successful black people and people in general that have walked this country, who decide to go forth on a single mission. And that was economic mobility.”
Inventing a recipe for success
With no prior experience in retail, Dr. Key depends on the expertise of her veteran team members. But she’s also willing to march to the beat of her own drum, creating new practices that feel right, and taking leaps of faith such as opening The Village Retail in the midst of the pandemic.
Dr. Key views success as a pot of soup: each person brings to the table not only their retail expertise, but also their vision for the ideal working environment. The team brings together the best of everything they’ve experienced in a work setting, as well as the best of everything they’ve imagined.
“I have no experience with retail. And so I have a team now of seasoned retailers. So every day I'm learning from them. And every day they laugh at how much, I don't know which excites them. Because that means I'm building such a pure model that they're saying, you have no idea how brilliant it is that you're not looking at any of the blueprints.
But what I will share, when I made it public that we will be opening a retail store, we had more fears than yeses. More people said to me, Dr. Key, are you sure about this? This is a huge investment in a falling economy. The retail industry is dying. Build online, not in person. And so I took those things into consideration. I think that is very important.”
“Again, I'm a researcher. And I studied the retail industry and I saw the decline in numbers. I looked at the number and I saw that retail, especially during the pandemic, like any other business, there was a rapid decline. But what I learned from just looking at society as a whole and looking at the businesses in which I serve, when things are closing to me, there is an opportunity to open.”
A social shopping experience
Social media plays a large role in telling The Village story. Dr. Key and her team are well prepared with Instagram-worthy backdrops and active social media accounts. But they also recognize that whether you own a smartphone or not, it’s all about connection. That means welcoming everyone personally, whether it’s with a selfie opportunity or just a genuine smile.
“We are always thinking about meeting our community where they are, and where they most share their happiest moments. And so we know that's the phone, and it's probably to some social platform. Anything that's special to us when, if it's not too private, we want to share it out in the world. And so we look at our store as one of those very special experiences that people want to share out.”
“And so I've trained my team that we have throughout the store very Instagrammable moments…And just say for those who the social platforms are not their things - because we have all type of demographics who come to The Village, and especially age demographics. What I learned from my little small town in Mississippi, for the older customer, what connection means to them is that you look them in their eyes and actually care about how their day is going.
That is one of the most valuable things that my team does. Every person that we're not selling anything to them, we're connecting. That connection leads them to want to buy.”
Principles + profit
Profit may be the center of business, but The Village isn’t just about lovely things you can buy. It’s about recognizing where those things that you buy come from, and internalizing the knowledge that supporting the community is both an enjoyable act and a civic duty. To that end, Dr. Key helped coin the popular phrase “support is a verb,” referring to the fact that it is action, not words, that prove peoples’ willingness to be agents of change.
“We all want profitable businesses. But there should now be a level of principles and values that deeply tie into what is true for you, and the truest form of your humanity. Because that is what makes us be better business partners to each other, and also to treat every customer.”
“And for us, every business that's under The Village is a valuable person. I care about people. And so before those people ever became a customer, it's just the person who decided to come to Ponce that day. And to walk into The Village.
And so for us, that experience, their experience when they walk in the door, they should know that they're a part of something different. And so when they walk into other avenues and go to other places, I hope that we put deposits that you must intentionally buy local. That you should care about where you’re buying your products from. And have you been thoughtful enough to make sure to tell other people to do the same.”
Resilience is humility
For Dr. Key, the heart of resilience lies in being humble and generous in spirit. It means paying tribute to your emotions, allowing yourself to acknowledge your sadness and frustrations. But it also means maintaining a sense of hope and creativity in order to forge your own path.
“Resiliency to me is wrapped in humility. It’s the ability to say confidently what you do not know. Resiliency is the ability also to be very happy and genuinely proud of other people.
And what we all experienced together several months ago, it was probably one of the most scariest emotional moments for those in retail, for those in ecommerce, and in the industry that need people to come out and shop and buy. It was a moment that if it was like mine, I sat on the floor and had to think, what does this mean for The Village?”
“Resiliency is giving yourself a moment to feel all the feels. To not have any of the answers, and cry if you need to. But the beautiful thing about a resilient spirit is getting back up and being cautiously excited about what the next chapter is. And to know that you have the ability now to write your own pages and to do it your way.”
When you hear Dr. Key speak, there is a wisdom, depth, and clarity to her words that underscore the vitality of her mission. Starting a business is always a challenging endeavor no matter your background. But for the black community, it’s different. There’s almost never a safety net waiting to catch you, and the rewards take longer to reap.
That’s why in the world of black-owned businesses, building community can be more than a benefit. It can be the lifeblood. And when you learn how to tap into that well of power, it makes any dream seem possible.