Business owner diversity on the rise

Dentist Nasha Hunter owns Sweetpea Smiles in Sugar Land.

Dentist Nasha Hunter owns Sweetpea Smiles in Sugar Land.

In the shadow of Sugar Land Town Square’s Christmas tree, pop-up shop The Collective is a new venture run by Sugar Land native Rachel Wingard. It is one of the estimated 33 net new women-owned businesses opening daily in the Greater Houston area, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express.

“I kind of like being the boss and doing my own thing,” she said.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Express report, minority and women business enterprises, often referred to as MWBEs, are growing at a faster rate than businesses overall. This trend is seen at national, state, county and city levels.

From 2007-12, the most recent available data, minority-owned businesses in Sugar Land increased by 23.7 percent. Women-owned businesses in Sugar Land grew by 17.1 percent and in Missouri City, that category grew by 6.6 percent.

By comparison, the total number of businesses in each city grew between 1.4 percent and about 6 percent in that time, according to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners.

Michael “Tate” Barkley, a Sugar Land attorney and University of Houston professor of diversity, said the trend has continued for nearly 15 years. For Sugar Land and Missouri City business owners, understanding the market’s diversity and having cultural awareness is key to their success.

“You’ve got to know who your customer is,” he said. “The second thing is you have to make sure you don’t offend your customer or your potential

Shopping local this season

For her first holiday shopping season, Wingard considered assembling gift bags for customers at her store of Texas -based art and home goods. She sells the work of 15 Texas-based artists—including her own.

“People love it when I tell them everything’s made by local artists,” she said.

Wingard opened Oct. 15 in a 200-square-foot hut. Family and friends helped get the shop open; her father, who is an accountant, helped make the paperwork process easier, she said.

“The hard part was bringing in foot traffic,” Wingard said. “It’s just such a new concept for [Sugar Land].”

Rather than hold a Black Friday or Small Business Saturday sale, Lana Dunkerley, owner of It Seams To Be Sew, said she thought of a more social event at her fabric and quilting store in Sugar Land, with food and markdowns on merchandise for the holidays.

“I think in this area, small businesses are not as in tuned to getting people in,” she said.

She opened the business in January and enjoyed immediate success largely because of word-of-mouth from customers and quilters, she said.

“It was women helping women,” Dunkerley said. “And you’ll find when women like something, they sell it.”

Dunkerley said it made little sense for her small business to join the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. She also said the city’s approval and permitting process for the business was longer and more costly than she expected.

“If anybody, or especially women, want to start a business, it’s doable,” she said. “Just do your homework.”

Jennifer May, Sugar Land director of economic development, said her office has traditionally been more focused on larger businesses, but she would encourage smaller companies to seek city resources as well. She said the city’s tourism office works to promote local businesses year-round.

At POParazzi’s Gourmet Popcorn, owner Keith Williams has already crafted a plan for the holidays. He opened the Missouri City franchise in August 2015 and sold between 300 and 400 three-flavor popcorn tins last Christmas. This year, he estimated he will sell closer to 600 tins.Business owner diversity on the rise

Williams is a chamber of commerce member but said he has not seen any programs specifically for minority business owners in Missouri City.

“There’s always stuff the cities can do to attract and recruit more minority business, especially when it comes to opening businesses and processing through the city permit process,” said Williams, who is African-American.

Tracking the trend

Sugar Land and Missouri City’s business communities are starting to reflect the cities’ general populations, which are 57 percent and 77.7 percent nonwhite, respectively, according to 2014 census estimates. If businesses can resemble and cater to the people they are serving, they will be more likely to succeed, Barkley said.

“People are more comfortable sharing information with people that are like them,” he said. “It’s just how most folks are.”

The Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce and the cities of Sugar Land and Missouri City do not track the numbers of minority- and women-owned businesses in the area.Business owner diversity on the rise

A foot in the door

Charity Carter said she wanted to share her dance training with children who look like her and have had similar experiences. She opened the Fort Bend Academy of Arts and Dance in Missouri City a decade ago to fill what she saw was a gap in arts education.

“There’s money for African-Americans here, and we need to be taught the arts correctly,” she said. “Many African- Americans have never been in a dance studio, but they know how to dance.”

She said Missouri City has been easy to build a relationship with, but she said she would like to see more MWBEs showcased.

“But is has to be in someone’s mindset to do that,” she said.

Dentist Nasha Hunter and her husband, Khori, faced logistical challenges when they opened Sweetpea Smiles in Sugar Land. Originally from Jamaica, the couple tried to get certified as an MWBE but were ineligible due to residency status, they said.Business owner diversity on the rise

“Now we are a member of the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce … so we can be in the loop,” Nasha Hunter said.

They also decided to designate Nasha Hunter as the practice owner while Khori Hunter runs the business through a separate management entity, a strategy they researched online because they lacked formal legal assistance initially.

“I think we need some more small-business owners represented on the [chamber] board in my opinion,” Nasha Hunter said.

Since Christina Hawkins started GlobalSpex internet marketing in 1999, the Sugar Land-based company founder said more women are using entrepreneurial networks to meet other business owners and promote their names.

Hawkins said she has encountered challenges while running her web marketing and design company as the industry had long been a male-dominated field. But she said that appears to be changing.

“Now it’s becoming more and more accepted, more normal to have programmers, tech geeks as well as companies owned and run by women,” she said.

She said Sugar Land has not pushed to bring more women-owned businesses to town but that, overall, the challenges are what entrepreneurs make of them.

“I haven’t really encountered anyone who was blatantly, because I was a woman, they were going to treat me differently,” she said. “I think Sugar Land is so diverse—[women] all do well here.”