In this article, gain advice from minority business owners Ray Blakney, Davis Nguyen and Irene Nakamura on how they overcame challenges, pivoted their business strategies and found success in their industries and communities.
Minority-owned businesses are at the forefront of America’s economic recovery. According to a recent survey, despite being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,1 a majority of the owners report that they are optimistic about the economic recovery.2 And many didn’t just survive the pandemic.
To learn more, we spoke to three minority business owners about their success, the challenges they faced along the way, and their advice for fellow business owners.
Approach Adversity as an Opportunity
In 2009, he had been running a successful brick-and-mortar language school in Mexico when the swine flu crisis hit.
“Our new brick-and-mortar Spanish school went from fully booked to empty in just a week,” he says.
His wife suggested offering classes online via Skype, and Live Lingua—an online Spanish language tutoring service that pairs learners with a native-speaking tutor—was born.
What started as a $60 investment in web hosting evolved into a successful business. “To our surprise, it kept growing and growing. We started bringing on staff and improving our services,” he explains. “It was not an overnight success, but within 7 years, we had reached 7-figures.”
Blakney’s Live Lingua success story started with the willingness to try a new approach when his old business model hit a roadblock. To him, having the right mindset is key to surviving a crisis.
“If your livelihood was upended by the pandemic, this may have been a fall for you,” he says. “But it is only a failure if you don’t try again. Either in the same business or in another one.”
He learned not to be afraid to move into the digital environment. He feels customers are increasingly comfortable doing business and getting services online, and his business is more in demand than just 1 year ago.
“The beauty of a digital business is that it is colorblind,” Blakney explains. “In many digital business models, as long as you’re not making yourself the center of the business, the customer never meets the business owner. So, many of the biases against minority business owners are eliminated. Just focus on delivering great value to your customers and you can succeed.”
Seek Out Diverse Mentors to Succeed
Starting your own business can feel like a risk. But forging your own path, and helping others along the way, can be the most rewarding career move of all.
That’s what Vietnamese-American entrepreneur and consultant Davis Nguyen learned when he founded My Consulting Offer, which helps aspiring consultants launch their careers through mentoring, coaching, and training programs.
“I know how powerful having the right opportunity and job can be because I grew up in a small town on the south side of Atlanta, in one of the poorest communities in America,” he explains. After finishing college and securing a prime consulting job at Bain & Company, he wanted to help others achieve the same success.
Nguyen started My Consulting Offer as a weekend gig reviewing resumes and conducting mock interviews, and it evolved into a full-fledged business. Today, he’s helped more than 500 consultants secure job offers from top firms, and his training program boasts an 85% success rate.
Unfortunately, consulting, like many professions, is still disproportionately white.3 But finding diverse mentors can help you establish and grow your career.
Nguyen’s own career was influenced by mentor Manny Maceda, who is the first Asian leader in Bain & Company’s history. “He had seen so many people go in and out of Bain, so could help me adjust to Bain and to my career at large,” he explains. “Manny’s advice helped me overcome challenges that come from being Asian-American in places where Asian-Americans are underrepresented in leadership.”
Nguyen recommends seeking out mentors from all walks of life: ones with a similar background who can help you navigate your career, and ones with different life experiences who can broaden your horizons. “[As Manny says,] breaking barriers involves having supporters and mentors from all sides, and not isolating from one another.”
Finally, Nguyen has a message for any business owner afraid of failure: Take the plunge and chase your dreams. “My grandma, who risked her life to escape Vietnam as a refugee and come to America, used to say the biggest risk in life is not taking any risks at all,” he says. “I’ve always lived by those words.”
Make Diversity Your Differentiator
Entrepreneur Irene Nakamura learned diversity can be a minority-owned small business owner’s strongest asset. She grew her company iDepo Reporters—the only Japanese-American, female-owned litigation-support firm in the U.S.—from a 2-person startup into a thriving business with offices in three states.
Nakamura’s 15-person team is composed of team members from different racial and ethnic, gender, sexuality, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This diversity, she says, makes the team more effective.
“Everyone comes from a different walk of life,” Nakamura says. “That helps us not only understand each other, but our clients as well.”
One way she fosters diversity in her business is by taking a “nameless” approach when reviewing applications because applicant names may indicate their ethnicity and trigger unconscious biases. Her goal is to hire with a team dynamic in mind. “Ask about their approach to life during the interview process and what makes them tick,” she says. “Diversity is a huge factor in bringing about teamwork.”
Nakamura believes there are several reasons for her success. Finding the right clients and partners—ones who value diversity—has been key, she says. She also recommends getting certified as a woman- or minority-owned business to find more ideal clients, as well as seeking out funding and educational opportunities for minority business owners.
Access to funding, education, and networking opportunities can help minority business owners open their doors with the solid foundation they need to successfully run a business and bring in new clients. Many financial institutions now offer such financing. For example, Santander’s Cultivate Small Business program provides opportunities for minority-, women,- and immigrant-owned food-related businesses in low-income communities.
Finally, find a trusted financial partner who values diversity and can connect you with financial resources that will help your business thrive. We’re here to help. Contact your Senior Relationship Banker or get in touch with Santander Bank for guidance on how to grow your business.
1 Center for American Progress: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Racial Wealth
2 McKinsey & Company. COVID-19’s effect on minority-owned small businesses in the United States.
3 Management consulting’s diversity problem—and why you should care.
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