Creating Opportunity for Black-Owned Business
Kesha Rodgers credits her success as a Black entrepreneur in part to her extensive network of allies. She's helping Black-owned businesses flourish by connecting them with an audience of enthusiastic supporters.
For Kesha Rodgers, advancing in her career has always been about more than her own success. Like many in the Black community, Rodgers feels a strong commitment to supporting her extended family and community.
It's not surprising, then, that the idea for her first business was about lifting up and creating opportunities for others.
Rodgers, along with her friend Sara Erickson So, co-founded The Ally League, a purpose-driven business that promotes Black-owned businesses by sharing their products and services with a wide audience of allies. Their signature product, the Black Box, is a gift box filled with products from local Black-owned and other minority-owned businesses. These curated boxes introduce shoppers and gift recipients to a diversity of vendors and rapidly increases each business' exposure.
Rodgers' desire to uplift and create opportunities for businesses grew out of her own experience and observations navigating systems that have limited wealth-building opportunities for Black people throughout U.S. history.
Nationally, the average Black household had 14.5% of the wealth of the average white household as of 2019, according to the Center for American Progress. That gap likely widened during the pandemic.
On the state level, a report by WalletHub ranked Washington 27th for racial wealth inequality. Black median household income is $0.73 per $1 of white median income in Washington. The Black homeownership rate in the state is 31% compared with the white homeownership rate of 68%.
In Seattle, the median white household income is more than twice that of Black residents, according to a Prosperity Now report, cited by Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka. White-owned businesses in Seattle have a value about 12 times that of Black-owned businesses, according to the same report.
Starting at a Disadvantage
Rodgers' recent family history illustrates some of the enduring obstacles resulting from racist systems and structures. In just the two generations before Rodgers was born, her relatives were contending with systemic challenges that carried over into Rodgers' life.
Her parents grew up with Jim Crow laws that blocked them from voting, limited their access to education, professional opportunities and income and restricted where they could live and whether they could own property — a fundamental building block of wealth in the U.S.
It wasn't until adulthood that Rodgers' father told her the story about his own dad escaping in the trunk of a car from a cheating sharecropping landowner in Georgia.
"These are things we didn't really hear that much about growing up," Rodgers' said. "It's only safe to tell these stories now."
When her parents divorced, Rodgers, her mother and her three sisters moved in with Rodgers' maternal grandmother. Her mother worked three jobs to keep them in private school for as long as possible to give her children the best education she could. Her mother also took great pains to ensure Rodgers and her three sisters were always well dressed. Rodgers said her mom wanted her daughters to have the best chance of achieving success in a white-dominated professional world, and thought it was essential that they always look "put together."
"She taught us to always present flawlessly," Rodgers said. "She told us we could get jobs if the electric bill didn't get paid, but not if we didn't dress the part." Dressing to signal to white people around them that they belonged was an important part of her upbringing. This is an example of "code switching," a practice many Black people in the U.S. adopt in order to be accepted by white society.
Despite the challenges, Rodgers describes herself as lucky to have had so much opportunity, and she actively worked to make the most of those opportunities to achieve success.
She and her sisters excelled academically, but their family didn't have a cushion of wealth to fall back on, which forced the sisters to prioritize work over finishing their degrees.
Rodgers was pursuing a double major in secondary education in Cincinnati when her mother experienced health challenges that left her disabled. Rodgers had to go home to help her sisters provide for the family, and to be sure her little sister had the resources to graduate from high school and continue her education.
"It took me 14 years to finish college," Rodgers said.
In the meantime, she worked hard and steadily moved up the ladder at biotechnology companies. She started out doing data entry, then became the person building the databases.
"I tried to make myself indispensable," she said. "By the time the lack of a degree was a barrier to my advancement, I had the financial means to finish."
After college, she learned through conversations that many of her white colleagues hadn't had to make the same choices she did. Her friends told her that their parents helped pay for college or covered the cost entirely. In recent years, when her aging mother needed additional medical care, her friends wondered why she didn't rely on long-term care insurance.
"My sisters and I put our beans together to help pay for my mother's care for the rest of her life," Rodgers said. "My disposable income doesn't just serve me."
After the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in 2020, many of Rodgers' white colleagues expressed an interest in understanding and challenging systemic racism. Rodgers thought if there was some way she could help focus that energy, allies could help make progress toward closing wealth and opportunity gaps.
The idea for The Ally League was beginning to form.
Bonding Over Race With a Daycare Mom
Rodgers and So, who also worked in biotech, met at their children's daycare. The women became friends, bonding over the challenges of parenting in general, and being parents of multi-racial children (Rodgers married and had children with a white man. So is white; she married and had children with an Asian American man.)
Other daycare parents started to join their conversations about race.
"We became the people the soccer moms call when they have a question about race," Rodgers said.
Their conversations also revealed differences in spending patterns and what it means to have enough money: Rodgers and her Black friends tend to spend more of their income to support their parents, extended family and friends, while more of So's earnings stay within her immediate family.
"When we talked about what we could and couldn't afford, she was shocked by how much some Black people are giving back," Rodgers said. "The only way we have enough is if we band together."
Helping Allies Take Meaningful Action
In 2020, when George Floyd's death set off protests against police brutality and racism across the country, many of Rodgers' coworkers said they wanted to support anti-racism causes, but they weren't sure how best to do that.
Rodgers approached her friend So about starting a business that would help people take meaningful action, and So accepted. Three weeks later, they had their idea: a business that would amplify the businesses of Black entrepreneurs.
Rodgers saw an opportunity to leverage the way racial privilege works and the energy and good intentions of allies to increase exposure of Black-owned businesses: "I happen to be an educated woman in a very lucrative industry. I had a white friend who could help me get into white spaces. My financially-secure white friends know other white friends who wanted to support what we were doing. Many of the businesses we work with don't have those connections."
Another barrier Rodgers has discovered is that white shoppers sometimes assume a Black-owned business' products are only for Black people. Rodgers gave the example of skin moisturizers like body butters that are for everyone.
The Ally League connects the dots, marketing Black-owned business offerings to white shoppers and other allies with the express intent to dismantle racism and close the wealth gap. Business has been booming.
"We had a goal of selling 100 boxes by January 2021. If we could make $5,000, we'd break even. By the end of January, we had $19,000 in sales," Rodgers said. They immediately reinvested the profits to partner with more entrepreneurs.
Each Black Box contains products from three or more businesses. Rodgers and So hope recipients will fall in love with the products in their gift boxes and continue to buy directly from those vendors.
"Customer discovery is such a big part of being a successful business," Rodgers said.
The Ally League also offers educational workshops, a continuation of the work Rodgers did in her recent role as the head of diversity, equity and inclusion at the biotech company she worked for.
Rodgers believes that closing the wealth gap and creating more equitable opportunities isn't just for the benefit of Black people. By removing the barriers of racism, a greater diversity of people can contribute their ideas, creativity and work for the benefit of everyone: "How many of the world's problems could be solved if fewer people were inhibited from solving them?"
The Ally League provides one small way allies can help provide more equitable opportunities to Black entrepreneurs. Rodgers encourages allies to stay the course and keep the momentum in the fight against racism: "As hard as it is, keep going. You're more resilient than you know. And things won't change if you don't act."