At nine o’clock in the morning Super Bowl eve, Jasmin Smith, owner of Anchorage’s Business Boutique, hovered over 50 or so tables inside the first floor of the Dena’ina Center. Two realtors — Cecilia Jefferson (Century 21) and Leslie Jennings (RE/MAX) — joined her.
The women shuffled and reshuffled business names until there was a coherent scheme to the room. Non-profit organizations were evenly dispersed with for-profits. One political table was set out, for Assembly candidate Marcus Sanders.
They had until noon to welcome Anchorage customers to the first annual Black Business Expo and Summit.
In the back of the room, Vizuewl Dramatics owner and MOViN 105.7 DJ Tei Brown set up the stage. Local comedian and owner of Kelly-grams, Kelly Lee Williams, agreed to host the first annual Black Business Expo. He went over the list of acts scheduled to perform with Smith, telling Williams which acts were confirmed and which ones were not. Outside the room, Bayinna Kerah, owner of Diamond V.I.P. Services was setting up.
Staying ahead of the curve
Considering the state’s economic environment, investing in an idea like the expo goes against common sense. Alaska is officially in a recession. Current deficit reduction proposals are not resolving the issue of more being spent than income received. The budget is the most contentious issue facing the 60 men and women elected to represent our interests in Juneau.
The governor’s proposed budget cuts the PFD in half, to around an $1,100 guaranteed amount. Economists argue that this policy hurts the economy.
Anchorage is actively dealing with the effects of the economy slowing down. 2,700 jobs were reportedly lost in 2016. Statewide, a 7,500 job loss is forecast for 2017.
In the Mountain View neighborhood, where Smith is raising two children, the economic numbers add to the misery. One out of four persons are unemployed. Young men are killing each other over marijuana deals. The elementary and junior high schools are Title I, due to high free- and reduced- breakfast and school lunch enrollment.
The Mayor’s office is not immune. Recently, Ethan Berkowitz, informed the public that snow removal was costing the municipality more than anticipated. A $15 million deficit awaits the Assembly next year and the awful decision whether to finance more police or clean Winter streets.
Saving money and choosing to delay the purchase of big ticket items appears to be sound personal financial advice. To spend money at this time, with such low confidence of a return due to a dismal forecast, seems foolish.
Jasmin Smith doesn’t think so. She sees opportunity.
“[The] economy is slowing down because we are not generating new money making opportunities. Existing businesses are closing and there are less job openings,” she told me.
Now, more than ever, we need new, creative and viable self employment options. People need to start businesses because there is no job security. Creating opportunities for ourselves is what’s going to keep us afloat financially. The Business Boutique is helping by providing opportunities for training, networking and consulting, so that entrepreneurs and small-business owners feel supported. We are helping by providing a cost-effective option to support business development and growth.”
Last February, Smith met with Robert Alexander, owner of the LED Ultra Lounge and Grill located downtown. She negotiated one night a month to host a business mixer. With the assistance of a few friends using social media to broadcast the vision of the mixer, Smith attracted a small audience.
Each month featured a focus on a different entrepreneurial skill, like professional networking, private fundraising, grant writing, and crafting a business plan.
In October 2016, as dividends impacted the household budgets, Smith started dreaming about bringing as many of the fledgling businesses attracted to the mixers under one roof as possible.
The obstacle before her wasn’t will, it was a brutal schedule.
Smith also operates the Alaska Music Leaders Association, a nonprofit committed to supporting Alaskan artists from all genres in music with business and development opportunities. The fourth annual awards show is in late January. December is spent determining who gets what award. Most of January is spent planning the actual show. A major concert featuring national recording artist, Two Chainz, occurred on January 21, 2017.
Many question Smith on how she is able to juggle so many projects at once.
Building houses on Hope Road
Eddie Fuertes, owner of UNIApparel, traveled 900 miles from Fairbanks to attend the expo. He shared that such an event did not exist in Fairbanks. He started his business in Alaska last year and is very well networked.
The expo blows his efforts in Fairbanks out of the water. Fuertes received a level of exposure that he was not prepared for. He posted a video on Facebook, made an announcement from the stage about his business and was featured in the largest newspaper Alaska has to offer.
For him, it was worth the trip.
Shalia Campbell shyly presented her business, “Vibe of Dreams.” She hand-drew the faces of police brutality victims popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement. Under the watchful eye of her mother, Sharay Samuels, owner of Hustle Hard Fitness, Shalia is finding ways to reduce her publishing costs. Currently, each calendar retails for $30.
Twice, dancers and performers from Misha-El Baskerville’s Rhythm of Light dance studio graced the stage, where Samuels teaches on Thursdays at noon. Rhythm of Light is promoting an ambitious calendar of events, with a Black History Month event scheduled for Sunday the 26th.
Zion Phillips, the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Black Student Union (BSU) president had nothing except kind words to describe the expo.
As a military brat, I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been as far east as Germany, as far south as Trinidad, and as far west as Alaska. With that being said, I have never seen such unity in the Black community as I have seen here in Anchorage. Alaska is the last place that I would presume to be rich with Black culture. However, the Black Business Expo is a testament to the organization and fellowship of the African American population here. We came together and used the influence of money to empower each other financially and socially. I now realize what it means to be Black in Anchorage.
Not everyone thought the expo was a good idea. Numerous Facebook users left comments under an article from Alaska Dispatch News featuring the event, offended by the specific community reference in the name of the expo. The very idea of the expo was categorized as racist, equal to the perception of a white-community specific expo.
“I wasn’t surprised at some of the comments. I was fully prepared,” Smith responded. “The reality is a lot of communities host events in celebration and honor of their community. What we did was not new at all. Many, many states have Black business expos. Most importantly, our community has been accused at times of over-utilizing the system. So, coming together to create solutions to prevent, or minimize, is a great thing. We also had Black, white and Asian vendors.”