The concept for ShopBlackCT.com came from Founder and Co-Contributor Sarah Thompson, who wanted to do something proactive in response to the racial injustice amplifying in 2020. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Sarah, who is also Senior Director for Marketing Communications at The Village for Families & Children and Yvette Young, Team Lead at ShopBlackCT and Associate Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at The Village for Families & Children about the website’s importance and impact.
NAN PRICE: Tell us a little bit about when and why ShopBlackCT was created and how it’s evolved.
SARAH THOMPSON: The idea for ShopBlackCT was prompted in response to what was happening after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The economic inequalities that exist in our country have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, too. When the site launched in July, about 41% of Black-owned businesses had closed across the country.
I wanted to do something more tangible than sharing information—but I also didn’t want to do something that wasn’t helpful or wasn’t necessarily in my lane. I thought: I’m in marketing and communications, I can put together a website and I know how to market it, but this would never survive as a one person kind of idea.
I reached out to friends and colleagues, including Yvette, who I knew does a lot of program and advocacy work. We talked about how we can move from empathy to action and how can we each leverage our skills to create a free, interactive platform.
We formed a small team to begin with and launched ShopBlackCT.com in July 2020 with 175 businesses listed from a handful of cities and towns in Connecticut. Since then, the volunteer team has grown to more than 30 and we have more than 1,200 Black-owned businesses listed on the site.
NAN: That’s some monumental growth.
YVETTE YOUNG: When we first started, I asked friends to recommend businesses to list. Over the last several months, this project has created a sense of community as more folks learn about us through word of mouth or from seeing our billboards. Now, they reach out because they want to be a part of our initiative.
My theory is that having the attention focused on these businesses during a time of racial injustice in our society has really propelled this project forward. I think a huge piece of our success has also been the partnerships we’ve made with people willing to help promote this initiative and continue to highlight these Black-owned businesses. So many people are passionate about this cause and want to see the playing field be equalized a bit more than it has historically been for communities of color.
We now have a site that not only lists businesses, but also highlights them through virtual events, blog posts, and features. It’s promoted an awareness in communities that has enabled other Black-owned businesses to realize there’s a platform and a space where they can also exist.
One of the beauties of being visible is that others see your efforts. Hosting virtual events helped small business owners connect with one another and see each business progression. So, a business owner at the beginning part of the process can find others to network with who may be able to help them establish their business and boost their confidence, too.
That visibility is critical. When people are seen and made to feel they’re valued and important, others will naturally be drawn to that and want to support that. We’ve seen a lot of that happen, which is why the growth has been so tremendous over the last six months.
SARAH: There’s been so much growth because there’s opportunity for people to come together and unify to address these issues and level the playing field. I want to add that we’re not excluding anyone. Our team of volunteers is diverse and always will be diverse. It includes college students, professionals, and several Black business owners, which is very key. There’s an open door policy for those who want to be part of the effort. Because of that, I think people figure out how to use their skills are rather than being told what we need. They’re choosing what they can give and it works out really well.
NAN: Where do you see the future for ShopBlackCT?
SARAH: The whole idea was to remove obstacles and barriers for Black-owned businesses to be able to market their businesses so they can focus on what they do best. And to help connect people to those businesses without any obstacles. So, the site itself will always be free. We’re never going to have advertisement or monetize it because that’s central to our mission.
Our goal is to have every Black-owned business that exists in Connecticut represented on the site—whether they’ve been in business for years or they’re just starting out. Also, post-COVID-19, we want to have in-person gatherings and events. Until then, we plan to host more virtual events.
During our Small Business Saturday virtual event, 13,000 people visited our website. So, we want to create more opportunities for website engagement and, more importantly, we want to do what’s helpful for the businesses. We’re continually surveying them about their needs so we can respond through efforts like hosting more in-person networking events, creating more blog features, and enhancing our website with a mapping feature.
YVETTE: Our whole 2021 focus is: How do we continue to get the message out there? How do we continue to drive consumers to these businesses so they get the financial support they need to stay viable in this really tough economic time?
For continued growth, we’re focusing on outreach. Stories like this are essential to our marketing. I always say any promotion for ShopBlackCT.com is a promotion for the businesses on the site.
NAN: How can people become involved with ShopBlackCT.com?
YVETTE: Sarah and I have been talking about building additional partnerships to help sustain our mission. In addition, we’re looking to enhance our network of supporters and identify champions—people who can have an impact and can help propel our mission forward—so it’s not solely dependent on a small group of volunteers.
We encourage those interested in partnership or willing to help support these small businesses to connect through our resource link on our site. Right now, we’re providing a lot of marketing and promotional support for many of these small businesses, but we know they have other needs our volunteers may not be addressing and we’re excited to expand our mission.