Jeremiah Crow was released from prison about five years ago after serving a five-year stretch for robbery, hoping to use some of the electrical wiring skills he learned in confinement to get a job.
But employers were wary of hiring an ex-felon. So with the odds stacked against him, Crow struck out on his own, doing residential handyman jobs like wiring, painting and remodeling.
He made it a point to hire other ex-felons and through word of mouth business began to pick up.
Still, his business, KC Maintenance & Remodel, could have used a little help — a boost especially important in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, that help came in the form of a $10,000 grant from a nonprofit called G.I.F.T. that was formed last year.
It was the third $10,000 grant G.I.F.T. has made to Black-owned businesses in Kansas City’s central core, and executive director Brandon Calloway says more grants are on the way.
“The goal is identifying those Black business owners and helping them grow and expand,” he says.
G.I.F.T., which stands for “Generating Income for Tomorrow,” hopes to dole out $180,000 in grants by the time its fiscal year ends in April. That’s an ambitious goal for an organization that got its start less than a year ago on a Facebook group for Black business owners.
Black business owners supporting each other
Frustrated by their lack of access to capital, one of the group’s members, Christopher Stewart, suggested that members create a pool of money to support Black-owned businesses through monthly donations of $10.
With several thousand members in the Facebook group, he figured they could generate enough money for the program to work, even if only a fraction of the members agreed to his proposal.
Several hundred did, enabling G.I.F.T. to launch in May. The nonprofit has since received contributions from foundations and some money from a handful of local corporations, but individual donations still account for the majority of its funds. As of November, G.I.F.T. had 230 monthly donors, a number Calloway hopes to boost to 1,000 in the coming year.
For small, Black-owned businesses on the city’s East Side that are seeking to expand or even just survive, the grants have been a boon.
Crow has used some of the money to purchase a web interface app for booking, payments and scheduling. He’s hoping to use the remainder to buy a second van and additional tools.
“It definitely was a big help,” he says.
For LaRonda LaNear, the owner of We Got It Covered Catering, G.I.F.T.’s $10,000 grant allowed her to buy commercial cooking equipment and operate on a larger scale. Perhaps more importantly, it gave her breathing room after the pandemic caused as much as 60% of her corporate catering work — her main source of revenue — to evaporate.
“Most of these people are working from home now,” she says. “And when I do cater for corporate accounts, I have to send out multiple drivers to go to different houses because they want their employees served at their homes.”
LaNear founded the business three years ago, encouraged by family members who appreciated her cooking talents.
“I just started thinking, ‘I need to make some money off of this.’ At first I was thinking nobody’s ever going to pay me to cook for them, but it just kind of took off with a little bit of persistence,” she says.
The first recipient of a G.I.F.T. grant was an established business, at least by the standards of small businesses, most of which don’t make it past the five-year mark. Ruby Jean’s Juicery was founded by Chris Goode in July 2015 and had four locations before the pandemic hit: three in Kansas City and one in Springfield, Missouri, that’s licensed to a third party.
But the pandemic killed off business downtown, forcing Ruby Jean’s to close its location at 11th and Main streets and leaving it with its flagship store on 30th and Troost and another at 51st and Brookside.
The opening of a Whole Foods store in Brookside in 2018 nearly killed off its business there, too. But Whole Foods allowed Ruby Jean’s to set up inside its store, the first such arrangement it has made anywhere with a Black-owned business, according to Goode.
He said the grant from G.I.F.T. could not have been more timely.
“It really helped us to separate from the downtown location without any harm to our business,” he says.
G.I.F.T. is now taking applications for its next round of grants, which it’s bumping up to $25,000 over each of the next four months.
Calloway, who previously worked as volunteer engagement coordinator for United Way of Greater Kansas City, says the East Side of town is full of talented Black business owners who simply can’t access capital in the same way that businesses on the Plaza, say, can.
“So we’re coming in to say we believe in you, we trust you,” he says. “We know that you can do it.”