Black businesses need customers year-round, not just in February

Vancouver-based fashion designer Tilda Ruvinga is upset that her company's sales have fallen so much she has to close her business. (Yasmin Gandham/CBC - image credit)
Vancouver-based fashion designer Tilda Ruvinga is upset that her company's sales have fallen so much she has to close her business. (Yasmin Gandham/CBC - image credit)

Tilda Ruvinga is in the process of closing her fashion design company, TK by Tilda, due to a sharp decline in sales.

The Vancouver-based designer opened her company in 2017 and saw a surge in business after May 2020, when African-American George Floyd was brutally murdered by police officers in Minneapolis. His death spurred the Black Lives Matter movement on and generally raised support for the Black community.

"I had mixed emotions when it was happening," Ruvinga said speaking from her home studio. "Are people only doing this because they feel bad, or is it because they actually want to support me as a person?"

Anecdotally, it's similar to the heightened awareness some people in the Black community experience during Black History Month. But Ruvinga and other Black business owners say they need year-round support.

Yasmin Gandham/CBC
Yasmin Gandham/CBC

Ruvinga said she saw a boost in sales during 2020 and 2021, but it didn't last. She hasn't sold anything for months, a stark contrast to when she was making enough money to pay off all her student loans in 2021.

Now she's winding things down as she prepares to close the business altogether.

Ogechukwu Ajibe, a fashion designer who uses her colourful and printed clothing to pay homage to her Nigerian heritage, owns the Vancouver-based clothing company Ogeajibe. She said it's not enough for people to show their support during Black History Month. She'd like people to actively seek out Black businesses all the time.

Yasmin Gandham/CBC
Yasmin Gandham/CBC

It's important to have people "intentionally going out to support Black businesses ... because we can get lost in the midst of everything," Ajibe said. "It is really important now, tomorrow, and for other days to come."

Like Ruvinga, she remembers the Black Lives Matter movement and having "mixed emotions" as brands posted statements of solidarity with the Black community that she felt were performative.

Nerissa Allen, founder of the Black Business Association of B.C., said the current economy makes the problem even worse by further marginalizing Black businesses.

A survey by Statistics Canada in 2022 found that 35 per cent of Black-owned businesses were in a worse position than they were in 2021, compared with 27 per cent of businesses as a whole.

Conversely, only 15 per cent of Black-owned businesses indicated they were in a better position compared with 27 per cent of all businesses as a whole.

Allen started her non-profit association in late 2019, offering workshops and mentoring to Black business owners.

She said the current situation is due in part to a combination of a post-Christmas lull and people trying to save money.

"Inflation is causing hardship on Canadians and everyone is trying to save a dollar where they can, which is being reflected in what we are seeing in terms of sales for Black-owned businesses."

Yasmin Gandham/CBC
Yasmin Gandham/CBC

'Black people exist every month in the year'

Zion Greene-bull, a Vancouver-based tattoo artist who runs a private studio, is using Black History Month to give back to the Black community. She's been raising money to tattoo Black folks for free in February.

She said there is a lot of racism among the Black community getting inked, with some artists saying they are unfamiliar with how to tattoo Black skin tones.

"Historically, it's been harder for Black people to access tattoos and with Black History Month it comes with a lot of grief and family trauma and I just wanted to do something nice for the community."

Greene-bull also said it's important to recognize the community and support businesses year-round, not just during Black History Month.

"That's why we say Black history 365, because Black people exist every month in a year, not just in February."