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Some Baltimore female business owners find success through resilience during pandemic: ‘Keep going and stay driven’

Angela Newman exhales as she sits in her makeshift factory — an opulent, ethereal living room in her Northwest Baltimore home. Things have been surprisingly good during the coronavirus pandemic for her part-time business venture, a line of gourmet fortune cookies.

She tapped into her Chinese and Black heritage to launch her company in 2008 but took about a four-year hiatus from the cookie business until her sons, now ages 18 and 21, got older. She decided to use her free time during the pandemic to give her business another go.

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“I was one who was able to go in a very positive direction,” said Newman, who relaunched her company, Sweet Fortunes Unlimited, last March at the start of the pandemic.

Angela Newman operates a gourmet fortune cookie company, Sweet Fortunes Unlimited, from her home. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Angela Newman operates a gourmet fortune cookie company, Sweet Fortunes Unlimited, from her home. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron)

Newman and others have enjoyed some success during the pandemic by pivoting to something new, but they’re bucking the grim realities for the Black, Indigenous and people of color community and women in the workplace during the pandemic.

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The coronavirus and its impact on the economy have caused disproportionate job loss for Black and Latina women and pinched Black-Latino-and women-owned businesses more than others.

In December alone as many states reinstituted restrictions during a surge in coronavirus cases, women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000 jobs, according to an analysis of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics by the National Women’s Law Center. The center’s analysis found that the unemployment rates for Black women of 8.4% and Latina women of 9.1% in December were higher than the overall 6.3% unemployment rate for women.

A study released last May by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found the number of Black-owned businesses plummeted 41% between April 2019 and April 2020, a drop largely attributed to the impact of initial closures due to the pandemic. The number of Latino-owned businesses fell 32%, the study found.

Meanwhile, the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, released in November, found that 87% of female business owners said they had been adversely affected by the pandemic.

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The losses stopped several years of successful gains for Black women. While the number of women-owned businesses grew 21% from 2014 to 2019, those owned by Black women grew 50%, according to the annual American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from 2019.

Many women-owned businesses are side hustles, something done to supplement income from a regular job, reflective of the gig economy, the American Express survey found. Growth in side entrepreneurship was up 99% among Black women and 46% among Latina women from 2014 to 2019.

But even as the pandemic pinched female entrepreneurs, some found opportunity in it with 42% pivoting to a digital model and 34% identifying new business opportunities, according to the Mastercard survey.

A number of Maryland female business owners from marginalized groups say that they have found success during the pandemic by changing their approach to their business or starting a new one. They also credit their drive to make it, fueled by a need to survive for why they are thriving in the pandemic.

“It did give me an opportunity to focus on what I wanted to do as far as entrepreneurship,” said Newman, 53, who also works in development in the nonprofit sector. “The timing couldn’t be more perfect.”

Their success comes as little surprise to John Michel, an associate professor of management at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. He attributed these women’s success to the resiliency and ingenuity developed while facing other significant obstacles throughout life.

“Women in general, during the pandemic, have had to shoulder a majority of the responsibility,” Michel said.

But, women of color, who have had to constantly “fight an uphill battle,” have developed skills such as resiliency and a positive outlook to maneuver around and fight their way through obstacles they face, Michel said.

LieAnne Navarro, 33, opened the Mount Vernon café Dear Globe Coffeebar 10 months before the pandemic and related restrictions forced her to close in March 2020.

But Navarro said her experience with past adversity during the recession, coupled with being a Filipina, armed her with the strength to try again, launching a similar new business project just two months later.

“Having perseverance by working hard and being behind that counter helps,” she explained. “I’m used to having challenges and not being able to do things the easier way.”

LieAnne Navarro owns Dear Globe Coffee Roasters and will be opening a coffee bar soon.
LieAnne Navarro owns Dear Globe Coffee Roasters and will be opening a coffee bar soon. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Navarro opened a 1,000-square-feet roastery and coffee lab — where baristas and enthusiasts can try different coffees and roasting methods in Mount Vernon.

“I was able to reserve some energy [after closing her cafe] so that I am excited to open up a new space,” she said.

During the pandemic, Navarro has expanded to sell her coffees into stores and coffee shops — doubling the volume of beans she roasts.

She plans to open a new 1,800-square-foot cafe and art gallery as part of Four Ten Lofts, a new mixed-use residential and retail building on North Eutaw Street in the Bromo Arts District. Although she has some capital, Navarro is in the process of crowdfunding the $15,000 she needs to open the new space at the end of summer.

Newman also is expanding. Less than a year after relaunching her cookie business, she already has signed a new contract to sell them at the Eddie’s of Roland Park grocery store. The store sold her cookies in 2010. And she is now creating baby shower and wedding favors while debuting a spring line of her fortune cookies.

“I’m going to keep doing it,” she said with pride. “It seems to have been the right timing to do it.”

While the economic news nationwide has been mostly grim, Maryland offers Black female business owners a better chance for success than many other states, according to the “Best States for Black Women-Owned Businesses in 2021” report by Merchant Maverick, which reviews small business software and services.

“It’s uplifting,” said Mary Brown, special projects director for Merchant Maverick. “Maryland has this economic landscape that is helping women of color that will help them start a business and actually make a living off of it.”

Diana Miller, 49, surprised herself with her success.

She usually can be found once a week at Lake Montebello with people who have spotted her doing hula hoop exercises.

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Miller, who lives near the reservoir and park, took a buyout in June from her job as a customer service representative for Delta Air Lines. After tiring of running at the start of the pandemic, she decided to offer socially distanced hula hoop exercise classes.

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Customers can attend free once they have purchased her custom, colorful hula hoops, which she sells for $40 to $45 on social media.

Diana Miller, owner of Diana Original Hoops, a hula hoop and exercise company, demonstrates what her classes look like at Lake Montebello.
Diana Miller, owner of Diana Original Hoops, a hula hoop and exercise company, demonstrates what her classes look like at Lake Montebello. (Ulysses Muñoz)

“I thought I would make 10 hoops,” Miller recalled. “Then this thing took off like wildfire.”

She estimates that she has made and sold more than 400 since launching in March.

Miller attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to her mother, who was a hairstylist and immigrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in the 1960s.

“Anything is possible. Nothing is impossible,” she said. “Keep going and stay driven. Don’t let anything stop you from accomplishing your dreams and your goals.”

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