Hide & Seek: Why Some Companies Hide Being Black Or Woman Owned
Some Black business owners are in hiding.
It may seem like an odd thing to do when people are calling on one another to support Black businesses left and right, but some owners feel they will be more successful if their customers don’t know they are Black and that the company they patronize is Black owned. And there is some evidence that theory might be true. A 2014 Nielsen report on African-American buying habits found that 55 percent of Blacks with household incomes of at least $50,000 said they would buy or support a product if it was sold or supported by a person of color or minority-owned business. But only 20 percent of non-African Americans in the same income bracket would do the same.
So it’s no wonder some people want to hide their ownership. For if there race was known, Black business owners just might lose customers. That’s what a few entrepreneurs recently told the Chicago Tribune. While most of the owners interviewed for the article on downplaying ownership hide their position by excluding their photos from the company website and marketing materials, others go further. “Others give the impression that their white employees actually own the operations,” the newspaper reported.
This may sound radical, but it’s actually been a long-standing practice. “This isn’t new it’s just packaged in a different way,” noted branding expert Sheila P. Coates of BYOB/Be Your Own Brand! “When I was an exec in the music business this same thought process existed. I worked in ‘Black’ music and never got the opportunity to work on pop records. But when a Black artist wanted to speak to the ‘general’ audience and crossover they were then handled by the white marketing executive. For some crazy reason, when [something’s] owned or operated by a Black person it can only go so far. That’s the same thing entrepreneurs are facing.”
It’s for that reason Coates’ says the preference to identify one’s business as Black owned depends on the person. “There are some Black owners who wouldn’t dare take their faces off their products. It’s who they are and they would prefer to succeed doing it their way than hide who they are. It may take longer but it’s who they are as a brand. Bold. strong, and outgoing.”
Hiding your ownership can open you up to a broader market, though, some experts say. “If the ownership of your business is not advertised, there is less of a chance of you being discriminated against by consumers who want your product or service but otherwise would be biased against you,” brand expert Aniesia Williams told us. Hiding ownership may also help women-owned companies survive in male-dominated industries.
“Obviously it depends on your industry and the culture of that industry, at least in the short term,” said personal branding coach Amanda Miller Littlejohn. “Sometimes women can leverage their rarity in a male-dominated industry to gain valuable publicity. A female client of mine owns a construction business and has used being a unicorn in the construction industry to her advantage.”
But on the flip side, hiding your race can also harm your business.
“It’s unnecessary to hide whether your company is Black-owned–or Hispanic-owned or Asian-owned–when you’re looking to reach a general audience because it’s the product that your company is offering that the audience will respond to. If you are successfully providing a general audience with a product or service that they seek out and consume regularly, then the race or ethnicity of the company’s owner shouldn’t matter,” Williams said.
Littlejohn agreed, especially when it comes to brands that are built on the owner’s personality. “For personal brands who are selling themselves or their services it’s not a good idea to keep ownership a secret and here’s why: A hallmark of my business and methodology is authenticity – unabashedly being who I am. Being yourself helps you connect with people who need it the most,” she explained.
Does the same go for female entrepreneurs? According to Williams, yes. “I feel the same way about gender ownership as I do about racial/ethnic ownership: It doesn’t matter and it’s unnecessary to hide it. If your target audience is actively engaged with your product, the gender of the business owner is unimportant.”
And Littlejohn added that hiding your sex or race might actually hurt the fight against racism and sexism. “Racism and sexism are perpetuated and reinforced as paradigms when people change who they are to accommodate racism and sexism in society. The problem only grows when women or minorities hide themselves and shrink their visibility for the sake of ‘mainstream” opportunity,’ she pointed out.
To Littlejohn’s point, this is why sometimes customers don’t truly believe a business is Black owned, even when the owners don’t hide it. “I have a friend who owns a Mannequin business (Mannequin Madness) and she gets this a lot,” Coates said. “She’s an amazing business woman but for the type of business it is (she rents, sells, designs etc. mannequins) people are shocked she’s the owner. She has never ‘hid’ who she was and has won numerous national contests that thrust her into the spotlight. She didn’t design a Black company, she designed a company that speaks to who she is and her passion and I believe people get that more than they get her skin color. She’s professional, detailed and exceptional at customer service so that overrides her skin tone.”
Besides, if you hide your sex and race, you might miss out on customers who want to buy from Black- and/or women-owned companies specifically. “There may be consumers who are looking specifically to get the product or service you offer from a Black-owned or woman-owned business. If your business is not advertised this way, you may get passed over,” Williams noted.
Still, dealing with racist or sexist customers can be difficult, but not impossible. “If your company does good work or produces a good product, aligning yourself with excellence can help combat sexist and racist misperceptions,” explained Littlejohn.
And you can always turn away anyone you find offensive. “The beauty of being an entrepreneur is that you can (if you’re willing) decide to not deal with certain customers,” concluded Coates.