Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the passing of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in U.S. history. Madam Walker was born in 1867 as the first free child of former slaves and then orphaned at the age of seven before going on to make her fortune developing and marketing hair and cosmetic products for Black women.

Madam Walker once said, “There is no royal flower-laid path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” The Walker’s Legacy Foundation, which is named in her honor, provides entrepreneurial, financial and professional support to improve economic equality and entrepreneurial prosperity for women and girls of color. 

Having recently joined as CEO, Ayris T. Scales oversees Walker’s Legacy’s efforts as a global professional collective that works to promote the career advancement, skill sets and networks of multicultural women in business and women entrepreneurs. She has nearly 20 years of leadership experience at both the local and national levels addressing racial and gender inequities, most recently serving as Washington, DC’s Chief Service Officer, where she led volunteerism and partnership initiatives under Mayor Muriel Bowser.

I recently connected with Ayris to discuss her vision for Walker’s Legacy and the impact of Covid-19 on Women business owners of color. I am grateful for her taking the time to speak with me; below is a summary of our conversation.

Rhett Buttle: Tell us about you and why you’ve decided to come to Walkers Legacy at this time?

Ayris Scales: Originally, I’m from the Buckeye state of Ohio. I really appreciate those Midwest values that I was exposed to early on, and the sense of pride and social responsibility that was instilled in me by my parents, family and community. I have lived in seven cities spending a significant amount of time in the South, but DC is truly home, having lived here the longest.

Personally, I love to travel. I am a big fan of almost any beach, collecting art and learning about new cultures; especially those impacted by the diaspora. I can’t get enough of True Crime podcasts. And I’m a big supporter of HBCUs having attended Clark Atlanta University and graduated from the National Urban Fellows program. I am a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and the chartering president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Metropolitan DC Chapter. Most of all, I am a proud mother to an amazing daughter, who attends Howard University. 

Professionally, I’m a trisector professional who at every step of the way pushes herself to be a champion of women, a voice for those most marginalized and a true believer in the power of the collective. For nearly two decades, my work has been focused on addressing social inequities through public private partnerships and creating access, driving solutions and amplifying authentic messaging to close systemic barriers.

In 2018, I was appointed by Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser to serve as the District’s official Chief Service Officer. Prior to this role, I was the Vice President of Economic Growth and Jobs for World Business Chicago (WBC). I led its corporate board members, staff and stakeholders through a collaborative design process to create and institute WBC’s first-ever inclusive economic growth framework. This novel approach to programming and operations shifted millions of dollars back into Chicago’s emerging commercial markets, and connected hundreds of small to medium-sized businesses to major procurement opportunities. 

Additionally, I also had the distinct honor of having served as the inaugural Executive Director of the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), a flagship organization under President Obama’s White House Neighborhood Revitalization effort to end generational poverty. The novel two generation modeled strategy that I developed, focused on the educational advancement of both single mothers and their children, and led to DCPNI being awarded a $28 million grant from the US Department of Education; the only start-up in the country ever to receive this highly coveted grant. Other markets that I have worked in include: Indianapolis, Savannah, Atlanta and Chicago. 

When I think about why I am excited to come into this role, I take it back to the nearly 20-plus years that I’ve been building for this moment and the momentum that’s finally flowing to invest resources and infrastructure to support and advance Black women. I have worked to champion on behalf of all women, and to make sure that women have all the opportunities to thrive and survive economically. I believe that women are the backbone of our communities. We are the backbone of our homes, meaning we are the backbone of the economy. There is never a time like right now to ensure that women are being supported, and that the economy is growing with a diverse representation. I have seen for more than a decade, the blood, sweat, tears, sacrifice and love that has been put into making sure that Walker’s Legacy is a powerhouse and a real value add to women entrepreneurs of color, not just here in the nation’s capital, but across the country and now globally. 

I came to Walker’s Legacy because I believe wholeheartedly that empowering women is a surefire strategy to closing socio-economic inequities. I believe that specifically closing those racial and gender disparities can be done through entrepreneurship. 

As the new CEO of Walker’s Legacy Foundation and the Managing Director of Walker’s Legacy, I believe I bring a unique lens to the role. I’m a “practitioner” so I haven’t just studied the issues impacting women entrepreneurs and our communities, I’ve actually been on the frontlines establishing partnerships, developing policy, creating and executing strategic initiatives, overseeing investments and amplifying our stories. I have dedicated most of my career to addressing social inequalities that have led to transformative public-private partnerships with numerous global brands, as well as innovative policies and initiatives. Thus, centering my career on creating access, driving solutions and amplifying authentic messaging to help inspire, uplift and empower multicultural women of color.

Buttle: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted women business owners of color?

Scales: As if there weren’t already challenges before, the pandemic has impacted multicultural women owned businesses tremendously. While women of color are the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs, we now know that they face compounding barriers to their sustainability and overall success, even before the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Our Covid-19 Impact Report, funded by the Gates Foundation, is a study focused around the impacts that Covid-19 has had on multicultural women small business owners. With over 1,000 respondents, our survey found that 80% of multicultural women business owners did not have a disaster preparedness plan. Similarly, more than 60% of respondent business owners believed Business Interruption insurance would have been helpful. Our Covid-19 Impact Report also found that 75% of multicultural women business owners felt Covid-19’s impacted their mental health.  

Buttle: How is the experience different for women business owners of color?

Scales: Women of color are leaving the workforce at a faster rate. They are having to juggle the challenges of being a business owner, oftentimes a caregiver as well, and also working full- or part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. Minority women are also more likely to have a “side hustle.” Over the last five years, the number of women with side hustles has increased to 39%, compared to a 21% average rate of entrepreneurship. Among minority women, it’s even higher: 65% compared to 32%, respectively. These additional responsibilities coupled with the added burdens and barriers of Covid have really magnified emotional and mental fatigue.

Buttle: Could a targeted stimulus package or other policy initiative be helpful during this time?

Scales: Certainly, and “targeted” is the operative word.  There is no denying that our economy is facing unprecedented pressures and that many of the repercussions of this pandemic are still coming into fruition. 

I do think a targeted stimulus and support based on need and barriers to those most marginalized as opposed to more blanket investments would be most helpful during this time. Also, it is important to take into consideration the intersectionality of economics and health. 

However, government funding alone cannot solve this, as we can’t buy our way out of the setbacks that Covid-19 have further enforced on Women of color small business owners. 

Our research shows that over half of all women-owned businesses are concentrated in three industries:

  • Other services (e.g., hair and nail salons and pet care businesses) accounted for 22% of all Women-owned businesses (2.8 million firms). 
  • Healthcare and social assistance (including child daycare and home healthcare services) accounted for 15% of all women-owned businesses (1.9 million firms).
  • Professional/scientific/technical services (including lawyers, bookkeepers, architects, public relations firms and consultants) accounted for 13% of all women-owned businesses (1.6 million firms).

The barriers for women starting and maintaining a successful business include lack of startup capital, resources and loans; gender discrimination within male-dominated sectors; little access to strong networks; difficulty in obtaining government contracts; and children and family obligations. Similar barriers exist for Black women and are compounded by the influence on race on social, human and financial capital.

Women of color accounted for 89% (1,625) of the new businesses opened every day over the past year. This number has grown faster than the overall rate of new women-owned businesses in the past five years—21% versus 43%. The number of firms owned by African-American women grew even faster, at 50%. This is despite the fact that revenue is decreasing. The average declined 3% from $67,800 in 2014 to $65,800 in 2019. 

Buttle: What advice do you have for women of color who want to start a business?

Scales:

  1. Confidence: Don’t be afraid and have confidence in yourself and your ideas. 
  2. Comparison: Don’t be distracted by comparison of others. You’ll always make yourself believe you’re one step behind, even if you aren’t. 
  3. Clients: Take the time to pinpoint down who you serve and why you’re serving them. You cannot and will not be all things to everybody.
  4. Contingency: There will always be unforeseen circumstances. Nine times out of ten even with the best of planning, research and preparation, there will be the unforeseen misses.  
  5. Connections: Get a mentor. Our research shows 32% of minorities found mentoring extremely important to their success. 6)  Mentees are five times more likely to be promoted than employees without mentoring.(7)  Mentored women and minorities are more likely to be promoted than non mentored counterparts, (8)  and 70% of small businesses that received mentoring survive five more years.(13)

Buttle: Are there any resources that you recommend?

Scales: Well, naturally I am going to recommend Walker’s Legacy as a resource because of our wealth of materials. 

We recently concluded our Covid-19 Impact Study with support from the Gates Foundation. The pandemic became a disaster that required preparation from all small business owners. However, more than 80% of multicultural women or non-binary gender-fluid business owners did not have a disaster preparedness plan for their business and 62% felt their current coverage was not sufficient for the current economic and political circumstances. I would recommend contacting your insurance provider and asking about business interruption insurance. A number of federal agencies offer guidance on creating disaster preparedness plans  including the Small Business Administration (SBA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and READY.GOV.  

With mental health, we cannot pour from an empty cup. Women, particularly women of color, juggle so much and our survey found that 44% are primary care providers. These multicultural business women serve as primary care providers to their children, senior/(s) parent/(s) or guardian/(s), extended family, spouse/sibling/(s) and disabled individuals in their homes, and/ or within their communities. In addition, 75% of multicultural women or non-binary gender-fluid business owners felt the impact of Covid-19 negatively affected their mental health. Stressors among these multicultural business women involve increased anxiety/depression, increased sense of isolation and loneliness, decreased or irregular sleeping habits, and increased food consumption or hoarding. For resources around mental health I would check out Mental Health America and the American Psychiatric Association.

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