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What’s It Like to Be a Minority Business Owner in Westchester?

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(L to R) INSPO owners Ginghi Clarke and Janice Harding.
Photo by Ken Gabrielsen

Donvil Collins, president/CEO of White Plains-based video-production agency VeeKast, launched his entrepreneurial career early on. Born in Jamaica, he moved to the U.S. at age 5 and, after producing a TV show for his church in the Bronx at age 13, created a business that offered similar services to other churches.

Today, Collins, 33, runs a thriving business with five full-time employees and 15 contractors while on the way to $1 million in annual revenue. But, he says, being a minority business owner in Westchester is a little lonely.

Photo by Stefan Radtke

“You’ll quickly realize there are very few black business owners [at networking events]. In a room of 100, there might be three or four, maybe a few more.”

Donvil Collins, President/CEO, VeeKast

“It’s something I talk about frequently with all of my friends,” says Collins. “There are very few minority-owned businesses in Westchester.”

That’s especially evident when Collins attends business-networking events. “You’ll quickly realize there are very few black business owners there,” he says. “In a room of 100, there might be three or four, maybe a few more.”

Yet, Collins adds, there are some advantages: “Sometimes, you get a little bit of extra attention because you are the only one there.” But he’d like more company and wishes more was done locally to expose young people in minority communities to entrepreneurship.

“Most times in our culture, while growing up as a child, the highest positions you see [minorities occupying] are as managers at a supermarket, or a FedEx, or the post office,” he says. “It’s just labor. You don’t see a lot of black-owned businesses. Therefore, a lot of us are not raised to think that’s a possibility.”

The data bear out Collins’ observations. In Westchester, minority-owned businesses are less common than those owned by people from other demographics: In 2012, Westchester had 33,391 minority-owned firms, compared with 77,686 non-minority-owned firms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

County officials say they are well aware of the gap. To make the county more welcoming to minority-owned firms, about a year and a half ago, the County Executive’s office took a close look at its minority- and women-owned enterprise (MWBE) program and formed a task force to look at best practices in neighboring counties and similar-sized counties in other states, says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for the county. “We realized the program needed to be revitalized,” she says.

There are now approximately 1,600 MWBEs that are registered with the County. “Through our outreach efforts, we have increased the number of registrations by approximately 10% in both 2018 and 2019,” Gibbons notes.

One first step was streamlining the application process required to become a MWBE, enabling owners to be registered in the county’s database.

Photo courtesy of Westchester County Comminications Department

“The county’s ultimate goal is to get to the 30% target New York State has in place for awarding contracts to MWBEs.”

Bridget Gibbons, Director of Economic Development, Westchester County

 

Mirroring other counties, Westchester has set benchmarks for the percentage of contracts awarded to MWBEs. It now has goals to award 20% of its construction, 20% of professional services, and 10% of goods purchased to MWBEs. “These goals were established based on an extensive analysis of prior percentages achieved,” says Gibbons. “They are a baseline for us to start with and should be achievable.”

The county launched its conXpo event last year, with the goal of encouraging more companies to register as MWBEs. The second conXpo will be in April. Photo courtesy of Westchester County Communications Department

Click below to read about these outstanding minority-owned businesses!

Inspo

Minority-Biz Snapshot: INSPO

Offering fashion plus inspiration in one.

INSPO — short for “inspiration” — is a Pelham lifestyle boutique that its owners say is about more than just commerce: It gives customers creative fuel, whether they are looking for one of owner/fine artist Janice Harding’s impressionistic paintings or a dress that brings a fresh interpretation. The shop offers both designer clothing and handmade accessories, as well as home-decorating accessories, like soy candles.

Harding runs the boutique with daughter Ginghi Clarke, who handles the buying and day-to-day operations at the store, founded in 2017.

“It was always my dream, when I was a young girl, to have a boutique,” says Clarke, who designed prom dresses while growing up. Clarke had been working in real estate but was looking to do something new, and her mother was just getting serious about her art. Although they had seen boutiques come and go in Pelham, they were ready to take a leap of faith.

Photo by Ken Gabrielsen

“We felt like, ‘Just go for it,’” says Clarke. “If we fall on our faces, at least we tried.”

Fortunately for them, it didn’t come to that, as local shoppers flocked to the boutique. “A lot of people felt like the space was something that was really missing in Pelham. It was very welcoming to have that kind of feedback and gratitude from our customers,” says Clarke.

They have also expanded their reach by operating an e-commerce site. “Even the artwork is listed,” says Clarke, who self-funded the store with Harding.

Although they have worked with SCORE, an organization that advises small-business owners, they have not found resources for minority-owned firms to be plentiful. “I personally have not experienced that abundance of minority assistance,” says Clarke. “As a small, minority-owned business, I did think I would have more opportunities for business loans or angel investing, but I haven’t seen those options present themselves as much as I thought they would.

In the meantime, the duo have taken a creative approach to keeping the store full. They hold many events there, from bridal showers to book signings. “You name it; we are open to it,” says Clarke. “You have to be innovative.”

Kool Nerd Club

Minority Biz Snapshot: Kool Nerd Club

Helping black and Latino students enter industries that need talent.

In Orane Barrett’s world, there’s nothing wrong with being a nerd. In fact, the MBA from MIT and former associate at UBS has built a business that celebrates nerdiness while holding workshops that expose students to career opportunities.

“A nerd is a person who’s passionate about a certain subject,” explains Barrett. “That passion makes you want to learn more and become a master of your craft. If you combine creativity and passion, a cool nerd is a person who finds ways to make money from their passion.”

Photo courtesy of Kool Nerd Club

With his brand catching on — and invitations to speak to student groups rolling in — Barrett decided to expand the company’s mission in 2018 (he launched the company in 2016). He and his business partners are now offering a career-readiness program, which helps black and Latino students enter industries that need talent. Kool Nerd Club arranges for them to work for employers who want to build a more diverse team and are willing to offer training. Employers pay for the service.

Photo courtesy of Kool Nerd Club

Often, Barrett finds students can get ready for well-paying careers with a certificate in the right discipline.

“We tend to push kids into ‘glamorous jobs, like doctors and lawyers, instead of jobs that are struggling for talent,” he says. “One airline company was in search of mechanics. The mechanics make approximately $90,000 a year. That’s where we’re looking to become a conduit.”

Kana Vita

Minority-Biz Snapshot: Kana Vita

Making waves in the CBD beauty industry.

When Asel Hofgartner’s husband, Darren, developed degenerative disk disease, he turned to medical marijuana for pain relief. After Hofgartner tested his treatment on herself while suffering with cramps, she realized he was onto something. “It relieved my pain right away,” she recalls. “I felt amazing.”

Working in finance at the time and “not loving it,” Hofgartner — who emigrated from the Asian nation of Kazakhstan to the U.S. in 2011 — researched the idea of entering the fast-growing medical marijuana industry as more states legalized it. The couple soon found themselves cultivating their first crop in a greenhouse in Michigan, where they were living at the time.

Photo courtesy of Kana Vita

It wasn’t as easy as it looked. “Our first set of plants died,” she recalls. “There was no university where I could go to take classes [on growing medical cannabis].”

On top of that, Michigan’s strict regulatory climate added to the challenges of running the business. Two years ago, the couple moved to Tarrytown, where Darren is from, and continued pursuing their entrepreneurial dream. Hofgartner decided to make wellness products with CBD, which is derived from hemp, a crop that isn’t as heavily regulated as marijuana.

“It’s the ultimate beauty accessory — you can use it in so many ways,” she says. “It works for redness and swelling. It’s great for after-workout sore muscles.”

Photo courtesy of Kana Vita

Today, Hofgartner’s company, Kana Vita, makes two products, which she sells from the company’s website, kanavita.net. A face-and-body lotion retails for $85 for 100 ml, and a balm goes for $100. They are in talks with two major retailers to sell the products. She sources the CBD from a supplier in Switzerland, where the products are made.

Hofgartner says her number-one local resource for growing her business has been the Warner Library in Tarrytown. “Everyone is extremely helpful,” she says.

Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care

Minority-Biz Snapshot: Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care

Bringing healthcare to the uninsured.

Maria Alba-Trusa (below, left) is no stranger to the challenges facing people who can’t afford the high price of medical care. A healthcare veteran who spent 23 years at Scarsdale Medical Group, most recently as executive director, Alba-Trusa decided to commit her professional life to underserved patients after a healthcare scare in 2014. “I started questioning what I was doing and my purpose,” she explains.

The result of her soul-searching was to join forces with Gina Cappelli (below, right), who had experience in the urgent-care field, and open Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care in White Plains. Founded in 2014, the center accepts all medical insurance, with a focus on the uninsured community. Alba-Trusa serves as CEO, while Cappelli is founder/president.

Photo courtesy of Formé

The center offers a subscription model for the uninsured community. For $365 a year, members get unlimited access to urgent care and for $730 a year, members get unlimited access to urgent care and primary care.

“The idea is, this community can pay for their healthcare, but not at the current rate being charged by providers and hospitals. Medicine today is overpriced,” says Alba-Trusa. “If you are someone who doesn’t have insurance, and you go to see a doctor, you are going to pay 300-400% of what they get from Medicare. At a hospital, you will pay up to 800%. I’ve always seen that discrepancy as so unfair to the uninsured community.”

The center currently serves 10,000 patients, a large portion of whom are uninsured. It aims to deliberately keep the price of care affordable. “Formé never charges its patients more than 100% of Medicare,” says Alba-Trusa.

Photo courtesy of Formé

The center also aims to keep wait times to a minimum, something that isn’t common at facilities that target the uninsured. The center’s staff currently includes two internists, a part-time neurologist, a podiatrist, a gynecologist, and a cardiologist. It is open 365 days a year.

To help cover the cost of care for those who can’t afford it, Alba-Trusa and Cappelli recently formed a nonprofit and are raising funds to help cover the costs of membership to give access to primary care and urgent care. Alba-Trusa says, “It will also help subsidize patients living with pain who need surgery, since the cost is unobtainable for them.”

Formé has gotten certified as a woman-owned business but has not yet taken the formal steps to get minority-owned business status, too. Alba-Trusa, who is from the Dominican Republic, says the center is in the process of applying. “It is a very lengthy process,” she explains.

In the meantime, the business partners are forging ahead with their plans for growth. “When you believe in a mission strongly in your heart, you find a way,” says Alba-Trusa.

The ultimate goal, over time, says Gibbons, is to get to the 30% target New York State has in place for awarding contracts to MWBEs. “We want to be smart about this, see how we do in two to three years,” says Gibbons. 

The county has also reached out to MWBEs though conXpo, an event that has the goal of getting more people to register with the county as an MWBE, Gibbons says. It offers education on how to get certified in New York State, how to get registered with Westchester County, and how to find contracting opportunities. (The next event will be held in Yonkers in April.) “[Business owners] can have face-to-face conversations with the departments,” says Gibbons. “We’re trying to demystify things and do some matchmaking.”

Photos courtesy of Westchester County Communications Department

These initiatives are a start, say minority business owners, but they point out that some challenges facing minority-owned firms remain to be tackled.

One challenge is that many MWBEs run the kind of professional-service businesses that aren’t hired by the county very often — accounting firms, graphic-design shops, and law practices, notes Wiley Harrison, president of Business of Your Business, a nine-employee provider of bookkeeping and personal tax services in White Plains that has done business in Westchester since 1992.

“In the past, there were a lot of construction-related companies [that were MWBEs],” says Harrison. “They were building roads and bridges. At this time, I feel like most MWBEs are service companies — and the need or the ability of the government to retain them is smaller.”

Harrison would like to see the county do a marketing campaign that highlights MWBEs who have been successful in winning county business. “A lot of people don’t believe it’s possible,” Harrison says. “They think there’s nothing available.”

Technical assistance that aids entrepreneurs in responding to Requests for Proposals would also be useful — if it comes from the right sources, which, Harrison says, means entrepreneurs and small-business owners. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in [the opinions of] someone who has never had to make payroll,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Wiley Harrison

“At this time, I feel like most MWBEs are service companies — and the need or the ability of the government to retain them is smaller.”

Wiley Harrison, President, Business of Your Business

Access to capital is also a critical issue, notes Orane Barrett, the Mamaroneck-based CEO of Kool Nerd Club, which he dubs as a “career-readiness” company that helps prepare diverse students for in-demand jobs.

Like Collins, Barrett immigrated from Jamaica as a boy and would like to see more guidance on how entrepreneurs of color can tap into resources like the Westchester Angels, a network of private investors, or any mentor groups. “I don’t think a lot of blacks and Latinos know how to access that,” he says.

Barrett is well aware of the challenges facing minority-owned firms, including access to capital. However, he says, overall, “I believe ‘Don’t be a victim. Be a victor.’ We have to find ways around it.”   


Freelance writer Elaine Pofeldt is a frequent contributor to 914INC. and author of The Million-Dollar One-Person Business.

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