Sankofa: Looking back to go forward in business

Taking care of business

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Malcolm Crawford

In the culture in Ghana, West Africa, there are what are called adinkra symbols. Adrinkra symbols represent popular proverbs and are also used for recording historical events and expressing different messages. I am a lover of black culture, and I believe that you can learn a lot from studying what our ancestors were trying to convey in those symbols. One of those symbols is called "sankofa" which means looking back to go forward.

If we are going to be successful in business, then let's look back and learn so that we can go forward.

The Austin community is, by most standards, a community on the move. A lot of attention has been paid to the many new structures recently built, such as the new 15th District police station, the new public library on Chicago Avenue, and the reconstruction of Madison Street, just to name a few. We also have to our credit businesses such as MacArthur's Restaurant where people come from miles around to partake of the food that is an essential part of our culture.

But for all of our success, we have to keep in mind that there continue to be African-American entrepreneurs who do not have the big success, and even worse, lose everything they have by taking a risk on starting a business in our community.

In the last 18 months, many great businesses have opened in the Austin community. These were not by any means shabby businesses -for lack of a better term.

These businesses would rival anything you would see in downtown Chicago. One of the wonderful businesses that come to mind is D'Ellen's Deli, which was located on North Avenue, specializing in healthy deli sandwiches. Another was What's Poppin', a fine gourmet popcorn shop on Madison Street. Yet another was Jumpin' Juice and Java, which had the most impressive décor I have ever seen in a coffee shop. There was also Image Sense, a quaint clothier on Austin Boulevard at Division.

As wonderful as all of those businesses were, they are no longer open. The estimated losses in franchise fees, rehab and equipment alone are in the range of more than $250,000. If you include wages and other incidentals, then I suspect the amount would be much higher. All these businesses are needed in our community.

Let me say that at no time can I pass judgment as to the exact reason why these, or any businesses, fail. But I think that if we study the lessons and listen to others we can be better customers and build better businesses.

One of the biggest things that jump out is "location, location, location." We need to consider creating an area where businesses can complement one another: an African-American-centered business district. This should be a place where there is a continuous flow of diverse businesses networking to meet the needs of the community, so that if one store does not have what is needed, then another does. Before you open, you also need to think about how to get the word out about your business. Advertising is a big part of running a business. Austin has a good mix of newspapers, so study the circulation of a paper and its rates. Also, gauge how many people frequent your place of business as a result of an ad, and think of creative ways to inform people about your business. Lastly, join a network or association of professionals like yourself so you can learn the tricks of your trade, and save yourself a lot of headaches.

We cannot afford to continue losing these much-needed businesses in the community. So before acting on your desire to go into business: study, plan, and look back - then go forward.

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