Black, British and in business, the entrepreneurial journey of Kalkidan Legesse
Kalkidan Legesse is a social entrepreneur who creates businesses aimed at doing social good. In 2015, she founded Sancho’s Shop, a market place of ethical brands, operating as one of the largest solely ethical and sustainable fashion retailers in the United Kingdom. Now in 2020, she is developing Shwap, a digital resale platform for sustainable fashion brands. Alongside ethical business, she advocates for anti-racist strategy and intersectional environmentalism through writing, social media and interactive study on her Patreon page.
When you are a first-generation African immigrant in school, the last thing your teachers expect to hear is that you want to get into business. And when you are a recent (and broke) graduate, the last person who will believe in you is your local bank branch manager.
For these reasons and many others, less than 1% of business in the UK are owned by Black people.
I have spent the past few months unravelling what this has really meant for me as a Black Migrant Woman in business. Looking back, starting my first business ‘Scarves for Suitability’, with -£1300 in my bank account probably didn’t make much sense.
At that time, I felt that making enough to afford white label food and pay my rent was okay, exciting even. Although I had started this first business with only an overdraft facility, we had generated £3000 in profit in three months. I thought this was great; I had caught the bug for business, and so I did what all young companies do: I wrote a business plan, complete with a cash flow forecast. At the first opportunity, I wore my smartest clothes, hoping to convince my local bank manager that what I lacked in collateral, I made up in fighting spirit.
What I didn’t understand at the time was the bank manager’s primary role was to input data into a computer algorithm which would assess the risk of the loan. That algorithm would indicate that if a person is young, Black, and with no backing, they were not going to succeed. So, this first loan was denied.
Eventually, I realised that raising finance would have to come from non-traditional routes, a common path to take with those who lack collateral. Across the global south, there are many forms of fundraising, from accessing microfinance to friendship-based funding circles. For example, my mother and her friends gather one weekend a month to put funds into a collective pot, drawn from by each group member in turn. For my first business, it was a Kickstarter campaign (where fighting spirit counts for a lot) with 312 backers; we managed to raise the £12,000 needed to keep us in business.
After the successes of Scarves for Sustainability, I began my next business, Sancho’s. Sancho’s is a shop that houses exclusively sustainable brands and products. Together with my partner, I took the £3000 made from the pop-up shop to put down a deposit and first rent payment for Sancho’s shop and started anew.
For many years I ran Sancho’s as though it was an extension of myself. I’d work 14 hour days, seven days a week. Where another founder may have invested in a marketing consultant, I learnt the basics of blogs. For white, well-to-do entrepreneurs (and their mentors) this might be described as ‘bootstrapping’, the effort of keeping cost low to give a business a chance to gain traction before losing liquidity. For Black founders without cash to ‘burn’, this is the reality of starting out.
Eventually, the hard work from the early years at Sancho’s paid off, but not necessarily in the ways I initially expected. For example, building a social media account rooted in my values of sustainability and equality connected me with a community of women slaying in their own fields. Not having the budgets for models, and instead modelling myself has made me increasingly visible, giving me a broader platform to speak.
This week I received a message from a young Ethiopian woman called Kalkidan from the US, passionate about sustainability and looking for a career in it. She asked whether I would consider mentoring her. Please understand than in my 28 years of living on this earth, I have known of five other Kalkidan’s. Now here I am, connected to one who is planning her way through life, and so my journey and lessons will not only bear fruit for me but perhaps her, too. I think that is pretty cool.
Ultimately my journey as an entrepreneur has been coloured with both joyful success and obstacles imposed by structural inequality. In all of this, however, I have learnt three key lessons:
- It takes time to see the fruit of your labour, sow your seeds, nourish them and wait for them to flourish.
- If you are Black or a Woman and particularly if you are a Black Woman, people expect you to fail. They rarely acknowledge the systematic reasons for their expectations, but you can point this out to them.
- And finally, you can change the rules of the game. If one path does not work for you, that doesn’t mean another will not. You have to believe in yourself and give yourself the room to try.