WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Lisa Baskerville Bradford has loved clothes ever since her dad sewed her a dashiki when she was four years old.
She’s always had a flair for fashion. She knew it. Anyone who knew her knew it. She picked up experience working at the former Dillard’s store at Crossroads Center, among other places. But she wanted to express that fashion flair her own way — and reap the fruits of her labor in her own business.
She opened her own shop, Lisa Lou Boutique in a storefront at 614 Mulberry St., a great location about a half block from Lincoln Park downtown, in November just after Thanksgiving.
She had a vision. She needed the means to get there.
A new leadership initiative by a group of Black professionals in Waterloo gave her that means. It’s called 24/7 BLAC, or Black Leadership Advancement Consortium.
“I heard about their (business) accelerator class. And so, I decided to sign up for that. I learned everything about taxes, how to classify my business” corporately. “It’s just a wealth of information, a springboard to running your own business. So educational.”
She started the enterprise out of her home in 2018 and continued dabbling in it while working from home for her job at CUNA Mutual in Waverly. When she was finished with the class, led by local entrepreneur ReShonda Young, Bradford not only had vision and desire, she had confidence.
“Going in I felt kind of unsure about my business, because I didn’t know where to go with it, what to do,” Bradford told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. “But after I was done with that class, I not only had the knowledge, connections, and all that, it gave you the confidence to get your business out there in the community. They just bring it all out of you. They do.”
While she had hoped, initially, just to generate enough business to keep the store going, “It’s been better than that for me, so I’m really happy about that.” She’s doing online sales coast to coast in addition to in-store trade.
“This is amazing!” 24/7 BLAC board member Gwenne Berry told Bradford. “I’m so proud of you! I’m just excited for you!”
“We were so excited Lisa came in” to the program, 24/7 BLAC executive director Joy Briscoe said. “Her being in downtown Waterloo, that’s just been amazing.”
“Just to see her evolve, and her dream coming true, is really good,” said Sharina Sallis, 24/7 BLAC board president and community relations manager at CUNA Mutual. “She always had it in her. To being able to implement those assets of retail into her own space, that’s been nice to see.”
Bradford is one of the newest members of a small slice of Waterloo – young Black entrepreneurs. It’s the aim of 24/7 BLAC to make that slice larger. A lot larger.
The group’s name, “24/7 BLAC,” was drawn from the “24/7 Wall Street” study a few years ago that concluded the Cedar Valley is the worst community in the country for Blacks to live. Organizers of the group took part of the name to remind themselves to make things better – much like an athletic coach who takes an opposing player’s trash talk and tacks in onto the locker room bulletin board to motivate the team.
And make no mistake, 24/7 BLAC is in it to win it.
Founded 18 months ago, 24/7 BLAC promotes career readiness and advancement and economic empowerment with a multi-pronged approach: an “economic empowerment” educational series; the Wakanda Investment Group, a private stock investment club; “SkillUp” employment opportunities and advancement program; and the Cedar Valley Black Business & Entrepreneurship Accelerator, or CV BBEA, the only all-black accelerator program in the state. About 30 individuals, including Bradford, have gone through the training in the past 18 months and several are now working for themselves.
“That, we know, is making a difference,” said Berry, the group’s recording secretary.
The group, a registered nonprofit organization, is already seeing some progress, as evidenced by Bradford’s shop, and is beginning to receive inquiries from other Iowa communities as to how to proceed with similar groups.
The group has an economic empowerment series that runs beginning the first Tuesday of every month, featuring Mike Finley, also known as “The Crazy Man in the Pink Wig.” The 26-year U.S. Army veteran has been teaching financial literacy 32 years, including a stint on Waterloo radio station KBBG, and is author of four books. A past recipient of the local “Heroes Among Us” award, he gets his nickname from the attention-getting hot-pink colored wig he has been known to wear during talks.
While many people have gone to Finley individually for advice, Berry said, “This information is very rarely presented to Black people as a whole. When we talk about racism and overcoming racism, we talk about education. We never talk about economic empowerment. But truly, you can make all the money in the world, but you’re not going to be able to buy that house you want in ‘XYZ’ neighborhood if you have not focused on your credit score, focused on your credit. That we just don’t talk about.”
“When we talk to people through 24/7, we tell people it’s okay to have money in the bank. But the best place to have your money is investing it. We’re finding ways to help, very specifically, Black people, address those discrepancies,” Berry said. “Not as a victim, but as someone who simply hasn’t has the same opportunity to get this information.”
The investment club, named “Wakanda” after the African kingdom in the “Black Panther” movie, looks at “how are we going to invest this money as a group” in the stock market, researching various sectors of industry and companies to prospectively invest in, such as health and technology.
Berry said the investment group has been an eye-opening experience for her.
“We also are fearful of words like ‘investment portfolio’” Berry said. “I have typically said, ‘Investment portfolio?’ That’s something rich people have.’ We all have an investment portfolio — you have a 401(k) retirement plan. But are you maximizing the potential? Most of us are not. Particularly if you are Black. Because this is not information that our families have had.”
Another offering of 24/7 BLAC is a home ownership education program, “helping people to understand all the ins and outs of buying a house, and how our homes are sometimes the first step toward creating generational wealth,” Berry said.
The group’s “SkillUp” program helps people with basic job skills. “Not only to prepare for (job) interviews,” Berry said. “but also prepare to do things like negotiate for wages; prepare to move up to that next level.”
Last June 24/7 BLAC hosted an inaugural Virtual Executive Leadership Forum for Black Professionals. It attracted about 400 participants on a Zoom call, featuring Kevin Warren, the first Black commissioner of the Big Ten intercollegiate athletic conference.
“What really makes me glad is how the community has said, ‘We support you,’” Berry said. She said major employers are looking to SkillUp program participants for prospective employees.
Disparities loom large in Waterloo and around the nation. Robert Smith, a 24/7 BLAC board member and director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Urban Education, cited a February Business Insider article that showed Black Americans lagging significantly behind whites and other ethnic groups in a number of economic areas, including employment, business ownership and household wealth, among many others.
Indeed, many of the 24/7 BLAC board members are personal examples of the disparities – many with postgraduate degrees, others many years of military service, but pretty much started at the bottom of the job ladder locally.
“As a Black woman in this community with a Ph.D. — that tool wasn’t working for me. This shouldn’t be,” said Denita Gadson, a 24/7 BLAC board member. For several years she’s been an academic advisor for diversity and inclusion initiatives at the University of Northern Iowa School of Business and recently was named director of UNI’s Educational Talent Search program in Cedar Rapids. She worked at a number of public and private sector jobs prior to that.
The 24/Wall Street report not only zeroed in on Waterloo but quantified what many in the community were seeing, Briscoe said.
“Originally we were focused more on workforce development, but when we learned Black-owned businesses needed so much support, that was our first fight, “ Briscoe said in Bradford’s shop.
Smith said 24/7 BLAC offers “offers a perspective of helping the whole community from an economic standpoint.”
For decades, Smith has carried the message of economic empowerment to the Black community in a number of venues; specifically, “about financial literacy in the community and trying to generate long-term wealth.
“I’ve always believed passionately the piece that’s always been missed is trying to help Black-community citizens and people understand that there’s this level of finance that we have to be part of,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to be part of that. The better we understand it, and learn how to better understand how infrastructure is set up, the better off we’re going to be in sustaining progress and achievement in the Black community.”
“I’m kind of behind the scenes. I just want to be that conscience,” Smith said. “Don’t lose focus on financial literacy and trying to create wealth.”
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